The Mummy (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★
Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy” is a love child of Steven Spielberg’s rousing “Indiana Jones” pictures and 1930s screwball comedies. It could have easily made the mistake of relying on special and visual effects to create a semblance of fun and adventure, but notice its love for juggling cheeky dialogue, CGI effects and practical cosmetics, and propulsive action sequences. What results is a work that’s a real joy to experience, savor. It is apparent that those behind and in front of the camera are having fun and so we cannot help but have fun, too.
Loosely adapted from Karl Freund’s 1932 classic of the same name, Sommers’ version is a proud action-horror adventure flick. Its goal is to draw a smile on your face. Giant wall of sand, flesh-eating scarabs, salt-acid booby traps, creepy catacombs, resurrection spells, rooms filled with gold, the ten plagues of Egypt… somehow these are interwoven into the story in a way that make sense. It helps that the pacing moves so swiftly that it does not leave much room for us to breathe and think. It is often that the next plot twist is waiting right around the corner.
When it does leave moments of pause, like characters sitting around a campfire or observing someone make a mess of a library or watching a horse versus camel race, emphasis is placed on the environment. It involves us by inviting us to look at the surrounding area and appreciate how hot it must be out there in the sand dunes, to imagine the hours it would take to reorganize (or peruse) books that have fallen out of shelves, to feel the excitement of treasures (and curses) have yet to be discovered. Subtle details are what separate a generic action movie from an action picture that you wish to revisit again and again.
The film is elevated by Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz’ terrific performances. He is an American adventurer/treasure hunter who comes across the location of Hamunaptra, also known as the City of the Dead, only to be driven away by guards called The Medjai (Oded Fehr) that wish to keep the site unknown to the world. She is a British Egyptologist who wishes to get her hands on an ancient book after her brother, Jonathan (John Hannah), gives her a present that so happens to be a key of sorts. (Inside it is a map to Hamunaptra.) Fraser and Weisz evoke an innocent and playful sexual chemistry; they don’t have to try so much to be likable together or apart. When together, they deliver their lines not with a wink but an earnestness—to discover one another and whatever it is they hope to find throughout their journey. The romance is effortless.
Less interesting is the central villain named Imhotep played by Arnold Vosloo. Although I enjoyed that the character simply wishes to resurrect the woman he loves (Patricia Velásquez), there is a problem that cannot be overlooked: strip away Imhotep’s superpowers and invincibility and realize this antagonist is not at all interesting. It is probably why the filmmakers make the choice of Imhotep having to destroy something or kill someone nearly every time he makes an appearance on screen—to create an illusion of formidability because there is not much else to the character. Still, it beats another antagonist wishing to take over the world.
“The Mummy” is popcorn entertainment through and through and there is no apology offered. Why be shy of its identity when so many elements are working in its favor? Call it cheesy, silly, or inconsequential. I ask, “So what?” There is room for movies like this—and there is certainly an audience for movies like it. If only other projects were equally unabashed, more mediocre movies that took the half-assed, halfway approach would have likely ended up better than they did.