The Mummy (1999)

D: Stephen Sommers
S: Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Arnold Vosloo

Another terrific popcorn-muncher from Stephen Sommers following the equally brainless but entertaining Deep Rising. If your taste runs to films with genuine emotion or even a well worked plot (let alone intelligence), then you're probably best off avoiding it. But if you are in the mood for a series of well mounted set pieces with plenty of elaborate computer-generated special effects and lots of violent mayhem, you're on the right track. Nominally based upon the 1932 Universal horror classic, this belated revival of the franchise is not so much a remake as a complete rethinking of the monster and his powers which results in Indiana Jones-type action and Terminator 2 style special effects instead of the haunting romance and dark chills of the original version. For many this will be dispiritingly dumb and an insult to fond memories, but if you can get past the denial, it works quite well.

Instead of the bandaged, shambling creature which peopled the sequels to the first film, Sommers returns to its original premise by starting in ancient Egypt where high priest Arnold Vosloo risks his life for forbidden love with the Pharaoh's mistress. When he is caught and punished for his crime, he is sentenced to a horrible torture and an after-death curse which will bring him back to life if his tomb is defiled in the future. Cut to the Saturday Matinée 1920s where soldier of fortune Brendan Fraser and not so trusty sidekick Kevin J. O'Connor (of Deep Rising) face hordes of politically incorrect Arab horsemen charging across the desert to the ruins of the forbidden city where the priest was buried, allegedly in the company of fabulous wealth. Some years later clueless librarian Rachel Weisz is part of an expedition to the city guided by Fraser which competes with one guided by O'Connor. It is not long before someone presses the wrong buttons and opens the wrong casket, and the resurrected Vosloo spots his long-lost love in her modern guise. Of course instead of arriving fully regenerated as Boris Karloff did in 1932, this Mummy has to absorb the life force (and vital organs) of his tomb's defilers before he can reunite with his princess, which means plenty of one-by-one action as he tracks them down.

This Mummy is a computer-age incarnation, a shapeshifting flesh-eater who appears as a swirling sandstorm, calls down plagues of locusts and eclipses at will and enslaves entire populations of faceless natives to do his bidding. He's afraid of cats, of course, but otherwise he's got plenty of menace as an action adventure villain (if little in terms of classic horror and none in terms of dark romance). He even gets to talk, which works particularly well in one scene with O'Connor in which the recognition of language plays a significant part. There's plenty of elaborate, large-scale action to keep the punter amused, and though few critics seem willing to acknowledge it, there are many well-balanced tongue-in-cheek performances and dialogue exchanges which make it all the more enjoyable. It's not quite so dumb as it has been made out to be, and though it lacks the adult edge which made the original Raiders of the Lost Ark such a treat, it certainly makes a better stab at the pastiche genre than any other film of this type since then.

Fraser (George of the Jungle, Gods and Monsters) is just right in the lead. He cuts a dashing figure as the all brawn and just barely enough brains to get by hero, and acquits himself well throughout in the action scenes (there's a particularly entertaining Ray Harryhausen-type climax involving mummies and skeleton warriors aplenty in which he brandishes a broadsword with the best of them). Rachel Weisz is condemned to Dale Arden type helpless histrionics, and though she does get to go one on one with a female mummy at the climax, doesn't have all that much to do. The supporting characters are straight from the Republic Serial Handbook, but are played with relish by all concerned. O'Connor is nicely snivelling as the one who "always gets his comuppance, always," as he is told repeatedly (and he does). Vosloo does well when he is allowed to play his character as a whole body, but most the time he surrenders himself to the special effects in a way which Karloff would not approve of.

It all adds up to big budget nonsense of the kind which has the less tolerant type of critic drag out their preprepared "things wrong with Hollywood" notebook and has we apologist types forgiving its shortcomings for the sake of harmless fun. The Mummy is not quite harmless. It is a little bit too violent and it goes on too long (this kind of thing was done in seventy minutes sixty years ago). It is probably guilty of the ethnic stereotyping and sexism it has been accused of and it most certainly will not teach anyone anything about movies. But it is relatively well put together. The visuals are suitably spectacular and Sommers can mount a set piece with verve and humour. He's not so good on stringing them together with something close to an actual story (or at least a story which involves the audience at any level beyond the most perfunctory narrative engagement), but in the face of an army of horsemen streaming across the desert, a firey shoot out on board an Egyptian river boat, a scurrying swarm of flesh-eating beatles, a chase scene involving a creaky biplane with men strapped to the wings and a giant sandstorm in pursuit, and a handful of lovely skeleton warriors, does it really matter?

The Mummy is good summer fare which does exactly what it sets out to do. It is unpretentious and not without a sense of humour, and though this type of film making does not demand much rigour on the part of its makers or its audience, no one who pays in to see it should expect anything more. This is not an excuse, of course, and one could speak of the degradation of the medium in the late twentieth century, but then The Mummy is nowhere near as bad as Armageddon, The Avengers, Batman and Robin and many of the other films touted in recent years as summer fare without an ounce of fun about them and reeking of the type of condescension and cynicism with which too many critics have responded to this one. If the truth be known, The Mummy is quite good as genre films go, and it is certainly a lot of fun if you are in the mood to be transported on glory roads of pure delight to that other realm that cinema can sometimes take us to. Let it work and you'll be fine.

Note: The Region 2 DVD of The Mummy comes with an impressive array of extra features including a lengthy production documentary, data on Egyptology, the trailer, DVD-ROM features, and lots of production notes and bios. Good to see Region 2 getting this kind of attention at last.

Review by Harvey O'Brien copyright 1999.