The Mummy Returns (2001)

D: Stephen Sommers
S: Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz

So-so sequel to The Mummy (1999) which continues in the vein of writer/director Stephen Sommers' series of wilfully brainless action adventures, but unwisely tries to find a new angle on the old story instead of simply swiping another old standard and running it through the wringer. In an effort to expand upon the plot and characters introduced in his entertaining remake of the Universal classic, Sommers has moved the action ahead ten years and given heroes Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz a ten year old son. Warning bells begin to sound at this point as memories of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom come unbidden, or even worse (shudder) of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Yes, its demographic pandering again. The first one wasn't sure what it was, so it played it in between (kind of a horror movie which added adventure to the mix). Kids liked it though, so let's pitch the second one a little lower and introduce a moppet for them to identify with. Eek! As the movie goes on the Temple of Doom analogy resurfaces, because this too is a pretty relentless series of action set pieces barely threaded together by a narrative which attempts to crowd in everything but the kitchen sink because it has nowhere to go and hopes you won't notice. It's not that it's derivative: hell, that's not even an issue in this day and age. It's just that whatever slim hold Sommers had over standard narrative clichés in Deep Rising and The Mummy seems to have been lost in the rush to make this movie more than just a retread. You know what they say about the paving of the road to hell...

The plot follows the events which transpire when the aforementioned moppet (Freddie Boath) dons a magical bracelet which reveals parts of a map to the final resting place of the fearsome Scorpion King, a mighty warrior who sold his soul to Anubis in exchange for invincibility in battle. A sinister Imhotep cult has just resurrected the old boy (again played by Arnold Vosloo), assisted by a reincarnated version of his long lost love (played, as in the first one if only briefly, by Patricia Valezquez), and they plan to find the Scorpion King and kill him so that they can take control of his army of undead monsters and really do a number on the poor old world. They kidnap Boath so he can get them to the hidden oasis where the king is buried. It's up to our heroes and the other survivors of the original film, namely, drunken, thieving, gambling brother-in-law John Hannah, and enigmatic Magi warrior Oded Fehr, to stop them and save the boy. New characters include the king himself (played initially by pro wrestler The Rock), a sinister museum curator devoted to the usual end of the world cult (Alun Armstrong), and a fearsome villainous warrior (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who is reluctantly assigned the task of babysitting the annoying child while the baddies are en route.

There is a lot going on, to be fair, and Sommers has tried hard to fiddle about with the characters in ways that make sense, but it's really just window dressing which sets the stage for the almighty donnybrook which is bound to happen sooner or later when all of these folks get together. You'll also note that the stalker/horror elements which made up the bulk of the first one are gone altogether. The Mummy's regeneration is quick and mostly off-screen here, and it becomes all about big confrontations visualised with state-of-the-art CGI. From the opening scene, this is wall-to-wall action adventure which quite literally never lets up.

In its favour, most of the action scenes are well mounted. Sommers has proved his ability to handle complex logistics before, and there are one or two outstanding scenes of mayhem and violence. There's a nerve-jangling chase involving a double-decker bus and some rampaging skeleton warriors, and the full-bore battle scenes which start and end the movie are done nicely. There's even some cheeky martial arts action which gives Valezquez and Weisz an excuse for an extended cat fight with weapons (though the plot twist which sets this up is truly ludicrous). One scene is even ripped off from The Lost World: Jurassic Park, which shows you just how undiscriminating Sommers has been in his choice of source material. It's almost all good though, apart from the strangely dull 'wall of water' scene which retreads the 'wall of sand' scene from the original and the disappointingly artificial looking CGI-generated Scorpion King used at the climax. Sure, it moves impressively and is able to leap and pounce like no puppet could, but it looks worse than the rickety Harryhausen beasts which used to scare the pants off me as a kid, and this more or less wrecks the suspension of disbelief at just the wrong moment.

You have to suspend quite a bit more than disbelief to really enjoy this movie though. Solid enough as the action scenes are, they really are threaded together with a very weak plot: busy, yes, but weak. There are some amusing moments between young Boath and Akinnuoye-Agbaje (whose frustration and desire to put an end to this child you will empathise with), but most of the semi-sardonic humour from the first has been replaced with mindless winks to the audience and self-denegrating self-references which are just not interesting. The performers do their best under the circumstances, but Weisz frequently looks like a barbie doll that's been badly made over by a young girl with too much foundation at her disposal and Hannah is lumbered with one of the most awkward scenes in the movie (near the climax with young Boath) and can't quite make it work. There are enough small deficiencies here to distract you while it's still running, which is quite a feat considering the general level of mayhem in progress on screen most of the time. Rather than let it go with a smile like before, you tend to frown a bit too often on this occasion, and the result is disappointing. The Mummy wasn't exactly a masterpiece, but it was kind of fun. This is a step down from there, so you can estimate your reaction to it based on your affection for its predecessor. If you've seen neither, I wouldn't start here.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.