The Mummy (1999)
Directed by Stephen Sommers
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo, Jonathan Hyde, Kevin J. O'Connor.
1999 125 minutes
Rated: (for mild profanity and horror elements).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, May 8, 1999.
The first week of May apparently has become the new starting-off point for the Summer Movie Season, as a big special-effects blockbuster opens and cashes in tons o' money (last year was "Deep Impact"). This year, that film is "The Mummy" a loose-as-a-goose remake of the 1932 Universal horror classic. The funny thing is, this latest adaptation's villain isn't even an actual mummy, which sort of makes the title rather confused. On second thought, that's probably appropriate, since the whole film is a painfully muddled attempt at intermixing three genres (adventure/horror/comedy) that only a master director could pull off. Unfortunately, the director of "The Mummy" happens to be Stephen Sommers, a talentless filmmaker whose clumsy and idiotic monster-on-a-cruise-ship adventure/horror/comedy "Deep Rising" graced the silver screens last year, and whose motto probably is, "the more special effects shots, the better the film!" I'd say Sommers should have quit while he was ahead, but he's never actually been ahead.
In the brief prologue, set around 1200 B.C., a narrator that would sound better equipped for a slapstick in the "Naked Gun" vein tells the story of the high priest, Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), who was caught having an affair with the Pharaoh's wife, and then heartbroken when she killed herself. In an attempt to resurrect her body, the proceedings are broken and Imhotep is mummified alive and locked in a tomb with a mound of flesh-eating scarab bugs.
Switch forward to Cairo, Egypt, circa 1926, Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), an intelligent, klutzy librarian, is given a sacred map by her older brother, Jonathan (John Hannah), that points the way to Hamunaptra, the infamous city in which Imhotep's body stands amid treasure. With the help of the ruggish American adventurer, Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser), whom has been to Hamunaptra before, the three of them set out to find the treasures, including a consecrated book hidden amidst the ruins, but instead find The Book of the Dead. Once Evelyn foolishly unlocks and reads a passage from it, the ghoulishly decomposing body of Imhotep is resurrected, both to set into motion the ten deadly plagues of Egypt and to once again attempt the revival of his beloved mistress.
Pleasant and wickedly funny is the way I would have described "The Mummy" at the 45-minute mark, which mostly involves the characters of Evelyn and Rick and their travels to Hamunaptra. The dialogue was amusing (at one point when Evelyn gets drunk, she mistakenly says, "I bet you're wondering why a place like me would want to go to a girl like this"), and an action sequence in which they must jump from a firey ship when it is taken over by their adversaries was fast-paced and exciting. It's just too bad that these early scenes were simply the set-up for the resurrection of Imhotep (who, by the way, isn't a mummy but a rotting corpse) and a non-stop parade of mindless and flashy visual effects, courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic. Ultimately, once the main story arrived, the film completely fell apart, losing sight of its characters and concentrating solely on the millions of dollars that had been put up on the screen. Well, Sommer also was concerned about throwing a corny, completely inappropriate one-liner at us every minute, and I almost was apt to feel sorry for the waste of Fraser's talent until I remembered that he was the one that chose to appear in the film in the first place.
A more on-target title probably would have been "Prince of Egypt 2: Imhotep's Tomb," since the animated film from last December is frighteningly similar, minus the dead coming back to life. From the artificial first shot that would lead you to believe you were about to view an animated feature in which hundreds of slaves are shown working among the pyramids, to the subplot in which the plagues are set into motion, including a swarm of locusts and the river running red, the film was basically "The Prince of Egypt," but with comedy. Although ILM's effects look good, they are never actually convincing or threatening, nor is the film itself, since you get the notion right from the start that every character is bound to die except for our noble protagonists who improbably escape any sort of life-threatening danger that comes their way.
Another plot development that threatens to strangle your suspension of disbelief concerns Imhotep's mission to sacrifice Evelyn in order to bring his love back from the grave. Oddly enough, he didn't need a female sacrifice when he tried the same ritual during the prologue.
So what's to like about "The Mummy?" Let's see. I did like the opening sections and some of the line-readings were funny. Rachel Weisz is a stand-out in her role of Evelyn, the only three-dimensional and actually likable character in the whole film. Since her wasted turns in 1996's awful "Chain Reaction" and the failed "Stealing Beauty," she has clearly been a young actress on the rise, and with "The Mummy" she should graduate to a more well-known status. Once Imhotep is defeated (I'm not giving anything away since this is a given before you even walk into the theater), the film jumps back to life for the last ten minutes, in which they must race to get out of the underground city as it crashes down around them.
A big-budget remake of "The Mummy" has been a much-sought after motion picture project since the mid-'80s, but such innovative directors as George Romero and Joe Dante had been turned down because the studio claimed that no straight-forward horror movie could succeed with a big budget. So what did Universal do instead? They traded in scares and suspense, not to mention far more impressive "mummy" designs (that can be seen in this month's issue of Fangoria Magazine), for a mainstream action-adventure directed by the newly-confirmed hack, Stephen Sommers, who obviously has no idea how to create tension, all in the name of a few extra box-office bucks. That's Hollywood for you.
©1999 by Dustin Putman