The Mummy Returns (2001)
★★ / ★★★★
For the many things that Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy Returns” does right, the few that are wrong—dead wrong—manage to overshadow the positive qualities. There is a sequel worth telling here, but an uninspired third act, which is special- and visual effects-heavy, nearly derails what could have been a grand family-driven adventure involving mummies, Egyptian gods and their armies, resurrections, and those reliably horrifying flesh-eating scarabs. The attitude here is “bigger must be better,” but it loses much of its charm in the process, especially when taken side-by-side against its well-balanced predecessor.
A few years have passed since Rick the adventurer (Brendan Fraser) and Evie the librarian (Rachel Weisz) met and got tangled in their first adventure. They now have a young son, Alex (Freddie Boath), while Jonathan (John Hannah), Evie’s brother, still manages to get himself in trouble without meaning to. When the screenplay plays upon the personality dynamics of these characters, not only is it fun but also a natural evolution for the characters we have come to love in the previous film. One of the best decisions in this earnest follow-up is that it assumes the viewers have seen the original and so there is minimal backtracking. This helps because the plot demands a constant and breathless forward momentum in order to prevent most viewers from poking at the plot holes.
Familiar villains resurface, like the immortal priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) and the woman he loves named Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez). And there are new ones like Hafez (Alun Armstrong), the cult leader whose aim is to find Imhotep’s body and resurrect him, alongside the deadpan funny Lock-Nah (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) who is given the task to babysit the feisty Alex. I enjoyed watching these antagonists because I felt they fit this particular universe. Most ineffective is the addition of The Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson) who is given some background in the opening sequence, making a deal with Anubis and the like.
But when The Scorpion King appears in the final act, it’s utterly ridiculous; he is completely composed of CGI, he has no personality, just a really ugly sight. It is so uncomfortable to see Johnson’s face plastered on a giant scorpion. It would have been much preferred to have Johnson—without computer magic—battle it out with Vosloo and Fraser. Must The Scorpion King be a literal scorpion? It just doesn’t work. Not even on the scale of tongue-in-cheek silliness. What a waste of budget to have created something so unnecessary and worthless.
Needless to say, the first half is far stronger than the latter half. The “must drink from the Nile” sequence in the ancient ruins where we are reintroduced to Rick and Evie (she’s tougher now) possesses so much energy and wit, it functions as a promise of a good time. Then it is followed by a rescue mission in the British Museum of Antiquities which then results in an extended chase scene (with wall-climbing mummies) in London involving a double-decker bus. It is all so propulsive. But alas, the film begins to run out of steam about halfway through. There is one too many flashbacks.
Reliance on CGI is not the only key shortcoming. The second half might have been less problematic had there been further character development between Rick and Evie. Despite being married for years, it’s bizarre that many of their scenes are reductive and almost always ending up with a kiss. I felt the talents of character actors Weisz and Frasier being wasted every time Rick and Evie go for a forced kiss. At one point, someone (finally) declares, “Get a room!” Clearly, more effort is put into how to make, for example, a wall of water look good than to provide more depth or dimension to its characters. This is why when someone’s life is threatened, there is minimal drama—even for an action-adventure.