I have a well-earned reputation for being easy on movies. My friends will see some highly anticipated movie at a critic’s screening and be grumbling about how much they hated it, and then they’ll turn to me and say, “You’ll probly like it though.” My list of movies everybody says sucks that I enjoy is way longer than most people’s. My wife seems to think I’m some kind of bad movie Jesus being kind to the cinematic lepers. Especially with new releases people often accuse me of having low or no standards.
But there are a handful of popular blockbusters from the ‘90s that I hated at the time and have not turned around on. Most of them were big hits, then fell out of favor for years so I could breathe a sigh of relief, but then when the people who were kids when they came out grew nostalgic suddenly they were claimed as classics again. Of those, Stephen Sommers’ THE MUMMY is the one I get the most shit about any time I mention it. It comes up on Twitter every once in a while and I get a wave of people not believing their eyes. It doesn’t compute for them that someone doesn’t think that movie is one of the greats. More than once I’ve made the mistake of trying to go a little Rowdy Roddy Piper and lean into shit talking about it. People start to seem genuinely mad, so sometimes I back down and admit that I haven’t seen it since opening day and even though I think Sommers has continued to be a director of lunkheaded, formless movies with terrible visual design and seemingly unfinished digital effects despite enormous budgets, I did get a kick out of all that in VAN HELSING and G.I. JOE: RISE OF COBRA. So maybe I could soften to him.
Now I have a new problem, though. I finally did it. I went and watched the movie again, in the modern year of 2022. I tried to like it. I might be able to say there’s more of it I like than the other ‘90s blockbusters I hate. But I can’t say I turned around on it. So welcome, Mummy fans, to the latest annoying chapter of what I suppose I should start calling Vern Never Learns.
The prologue, starting with the Universal logo turning into the sun burning over the pyramids in “Thebes, City of the Living,” is pretty great! Epic, mythic, takes itself seriously, stars Arnold Vosloo (HARD TARGET) as “Imhotep, Pharaoh’s high priest, keeper of the dead.” This is the backstory of how Imhotep and the Pharaoh’s girlfriend Anuk Su Namun (Patricia Velasquez, BEOWULF, MINDHUNTERS, MALIGNANT) have an affair – “no other man was allowed to touch her” and this dipshit smears her body paint – and assassinate the Pharaoh (Aharon Ipale, AMERICAN NINJA 5, GUARDIAN ANGEL). Their escape plan is for her to kill herself and for him to break into her crypt, steal her body and resurrect her in Hamunaptra, City of the Dead. Pretty intense. But Pharaoh’s bodyguards stop the ritual, mummify his priests, and do a special curse where they cut out his tongue and lock him in a sarcophagus full of scarabs to be undead and buried forever.
The plan is pretty short-sighted though in my opinion. Sure, I guess it’s a plus that he gets tortured real bad, but according to the narrator, “The Medjai would never allow him to be released, for he would arise a walking disease, a plague upon mankind, an unholy flesh-eater with the strength of ages, power over the sands, and the glory of invincibility!” So number one, they are requiring a secret society called the Medjai to exist and pass on through the generations forever, forcing their poor children to dedicate their lives to this stupid task of making sure the mummy never escapes. And number two, can you guess whether or not the Medjai do allow him to be released to arise a walking disease, a plague upon mankind, an unholy flesh-eater with the strength of ages, power over the sands, and glory of invincibility? Why, yes. Yes they do. Thousands of years after the people whose idea it was would have to deal with it. Thanks for nothing, assholes.
Like, imagine if you were forced to spend your whole life protecting the tomb of John Wilkes Boothe so he never escapes and turns into a deadly monster. I hate that asshole too but that would suck! It’s not worth it.
As the title comes up it skips ahead to 1923 and the virtual camera rotates around a statue of Anubis as it deteriorates over time. The idea of the shot is cool enough to make up for the shitty ass CD-ROM-looking title. Much of the ‘90s typography has not held up in my opinion – I won’t blame this movie for that.
The introduction of the hero, Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser, between BLAST FROM THE PAST and DUDLEY DO-RIGHT) is pretty promising too. The scene looks like a good old fashioned epic, with giant armies on horseback facing off in the desert outside the now-lost city of Hamunaptra, as stoic Medjai leader Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr in his first movie, soon followed by DEUCE BIGALOW: MALE GIGOLO) keeps watch. There are way more actual extras and horse stunts than digital enhancements. Rick shoots guns and gets chased and accepts that he’s about to die, but the voice of the mummy scares the entire army away.
The movie’s heroine and love interest, Evelyn “Evie” Carnahan (Rachel Weisz, DEATH MACHINE) is not introduced with heroics, but with buffoonery. Filing books in her job at a library in Cairo, she clumsily knocks over a tall shelf that acts as a domino and completely destroys the entire collection while the music flails and jumps around telling us how whimsical and delightful we should consider it to be. After her boss Dr. Bey (Erick Avari, who tried to stop Fraser from drinking from the Slurpee machine in ENCINO MAN) chews her out and tells her to clean it up no matter how long it takes, the destruction is never shown, mentioned or relevant again, and her being a Jar-Jar-Binksian clutz does not turn out to be a significant aspect of her character going forward. The scene does have dialogue to establish that she knows how to read hieroglyphics but only got the job because of her rich, dead parents.
Weisz makes Evie kind of likable and at times even funny in her flusteredness. Unfortunately she’s saddled with a comic relief sidekick, her brother Jonathan (John Hannah, Spartacus), whose whole thing is that he’s sleazy and greedy but you know, in a charming way. This is a problem because Rick also has a not-very funny comic relief acquaintance, the weasely, treacherous coward Beni (played by Stephen Sommers/P.T. Anderson regular Kevin J. O’Connor [LORD OF ILLUSIONS]). I was relieved at least to learn that his cartoonish accent is supposed to be Bulgarian and not Egyptian. There’s also Gad Hassan (Omid Djalili, SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW), the sleazy warden who Evie makes a deal with who also goes with them. He spits more than his camel! And Jonathan keeps saying he smells bad! Can you believe it?
Then the Egyptian diggers are melted by acid and the Egyptian warden gets beetles inside him and rams himself to death against a wall and Jonathan finds his bottle of Glenlivet and says, “Well, he may have been a stinky fella but he had good taste!” Evie’s outwardly nicer than her asshole brother, but she enjoys this ribbing at a freshly dead man’s expense.
So there are between one and three too many comic relief characters. And it’s unclear what they’re even supposed to be relieving, because both Evie and Rick are also being comical much of the time, with such finely crafted jokes as Oh no, my camel is going too fast!
She accidentally shuts the suitcase on his hands and doesn’t notice even though he screams!
and other types of slapstick. By which I mostly mean screaming and flailing around.
The music can be too, I’m afraid. The score is by Jerry Goldsmith (who also had THE HAUNTING and THE 13TH WARRIOR that year) and it’s very good at times. It creates a legit big time adventure movie atmosphere. I just wish it would calm the fuck down more often. I’m sure that was Sommers’ call.
Jonathan has come across a rare antiquity, a puzzle box we know unlocks Imhotep’s sarcophagus. He stole it from Rick, who is currently in jail, awaiting execution, for having “a veddy good time,” according to Gad. Hopefully that doesn’t mean anything that would get him in a database. Evie makes a business deal to get him out so he can lead them to Hamunaptra and some treasure she has a map for.
On the surface Fraser is good casting, because he looks like the square jawed heroes on old pulp magazine covers. But the character he’s playing is written exactly as Indiana Jones, a cynical and experienced adventurer whose heart is hidden beneath his rough exterior and old timey sexism. When he meets Evie from his jail cell he’s an asshole, calling her a “broad” and forcibly kissing her. She calls him “filthy, rude, a complete scoundrel,” but instantly has a school girl crush on him. In the second half, after they’ve fallen for each other, he picks her up like a cat and locks her in a room against her will so he can go do the action hero stuff without her.
The problem I have – and obviously most of America disagrees with me – is that I buy Fraser as this character maybe 10% of the time. He doesn’t seem like that guy. He seems like Brendan Fraser trying to act like that guy. Take any line he has in the movie, picture Harrison Ford saying it, and you’ll think, “Oh yeah. That does work better.”
I don’t want to insult Fraser. I would say the same thing if it was Tom Hanks in the role. Fraser is very natural at playing a teddy bear, a lovable friendly harmless guy who’s possibly kinda dumb but it doesn’t matter. It’s another thing to play a rough-edged guy who knows he’s smarter and better than everyone around him but if the right dangerously clumsy librarian comes along his heart might melt to reveal the teddy bear hidden deep inside. Personally I haven’t seen him pull it off yet.
The rival American treasure hunters who they sort of team up with are a pretty good idea, I kind of enjoy those doofuses, but it was a relief when The Mummy started killing them off because it was starting to seem like the movie was going to kill all the Egyptians in the party and none of the Americans. Kind of treating Egyptians like other movies treat robots. Kill as many as you want and still get a PG-13.
O’Connell’s main contribution is that he’s good at shooting, often with two pistols at once. He kills some guys on a boat and etc. He also shoots at swarms of scarabs and clouds of sand, which I suspect accomplishes nothing, but I’m not a gun guy.
I guess this makes sense, since I would consider myself an Arnold Vosloo fan, but The Mummy is a better villain when he’s in human form. It was cool to read that Vosloo got his shot to audition because this has the same producer as HARD TARGET, Jim Jacks, and that he insisted on playing his part of the story as a totally straight tragic romance. I shudder to think what the approach would’ve been if someone else got it.
Before he can reconstitute himself into Billy Zane 2.0 he’s an animated character, who I suppose was advanced for the time, but I remember thinking he looked and moved silly even back then. In some shots he looks kinda like Claymation or stop motion, so I honestly think they should’ve done him that way. Would’ve had more personality in my opinion.
As various mummy types appear for the last act some of them do look cooler than Imhotep. Some of the best parts are when they’re shooting at the mummy priests (guys in makeup I believe?)…
…and then when he’s sword-fighting them (digital homage to JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS skeletons), and then the ones that for some reason march around like wind-up tin soldiers. But even then with scene after scene of guns firing, and then swords clanging, people screaming and Jerry Goldsmith horns blowing in your face it just turns into a bunch of annoying racket without much rhythm or build, and I just want them to hurry up and be done with it. But they will not hurry up. Even after they kill The Mummy there’s several minutes of running and screaming while everything falls down.
When Imhotep fights O’Connell it consists of three times in a row where he just throws O’Connell and he goes “AAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHH!!!” as he flies across the room each time. Which I guess is kind of funny. Funnier than any of the jokes in the movie, unless I’m forgetting something.
I guess what this comes down to is that it’s going for a genre that’s right up my alley, but it’s just not calibrated to my liking. It’s got a good scope to it and lots of fun elements but the lead performance is off, the humor is off, the build of the action is off. It’s a similar genre to MASK OF ZORRO, PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN or THE LONE RANGER, but I think those are far better constructed, with much more entertaining heroes and a sense of humor that appeals to me instead of being grating. I actually think the movie that most matches the tone I think they’re going for here is THE PHANTOM starring Arnold Vosloo lookalike Billy Zane (with DEEP RISING hero Treat Williams as the villain). I can understand why someone who likes THE MUMMY wouldn’t necessarily like that one – it’s certainly cheaper, less epic, less fantastical. But I think it gets that feel just right – proud to be corny and old fashioned, giving a little wink about it but not deflating anything – going all in. And everybody seems to be having fun so they don’t need to constantly be jumping around trying to remind you that they’re supposed to be funny. (Of course, it was a flop and to this day there are people who claim its humor is unintentional, so maybe aggressive mugging is what the people want.)
THE MUMMY’s screenplay is credited to Sommers (GUNMEN), screen story by Sommers and Lloyd Fonvielle (THE BRIDE, CHERRY 2000) & Kevin Jarre (RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II), adapted from the 1932 screenplay, I guess because of the names Imhotep and Ardeth Bey (who are the same character in the original), the idea of the mummy trying to resurrect his lover, and confusing the female lead for her, and that scratches on the inside of his tomb tell them he was buried alive.
I don’t think this affected my response to the movie, but I remember years of updates in Fangoria’s Terror Teletype as different horror legends attempted to make an updated THE MUMMY. George Romero tried, and then Clive Barker (whose version, unsurprisingly, sounds very strange), working with Mick Garris. I don’t remember this one but apparently after Barker it was gonna be Joe Dante directing a script by Alan Ormsby (DEATHDREAM, DERANGED, THE SUBSTITUTE), rewritten by John Sayles (ALLIGATOR) and starring Daniel-Day Lewis as the Mummy, “a relentless Terminator-like character”! (Apparently this one introduced the scarabs that ended up in Sommers’ film.) Romero and Garris both returned for other attempts before Sommers pitched a bigger budget INDIANA JONES version. Universal was desperate for a hit after the financial failure of BABE: PIG IN THE CITY. Clearly oddball visionary masterpieces were not what moviegoers were looking for, so they went in the other direction and were duly rewarded.
Now that I have tried to enjoy THE MUMMY and failed, how can I redeem myself? I tried revisiting two other movies I hated at the time that have followings now. I already posted THE TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE (2004) one on Patreon, which I had intended to do with this, but I was worried people would get mad and unsubscribe. I have another one I may post on there with a warning. The third one I have more nice things to say about, but I didn’t really change my mind on any of them. So what now? I have a couple more movies in mind but what if I don’t start liking any of them? Does anyone really want to read a series of “turns out I was right, I still don’t like your favorite movies” reviews? I don’t know, man. It’s easier when people are mad at me for liking a movie. Then at least I have the movie to comfort me.