Mummy Returns, The (United States, 2001)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The 1999 remake of the horror classic The Mummy surprised Universal Pictures with its box office success. The studio had expected it to be profitable, but not that profitable. However, long before the worldwide gross crept close to $400 million, Universal had already put two additional Mummy films into the hopper, awarding the series the "franchise" label. The Mummy Returns, which re-unites nearly the entire cast from the 1999 movie, is the first of these two productions. The other, a prequel called The Scorpion King, will be released either later this year or next year, depending on how Universal arranges its release schedule.

Stephen Sommers' 1999 feature was an enjoyable, if overlong, romp recounting the struggles of an adventurer and his companions to stop the apocalyptic agenda of an ancient Egyptian priest. While not entirely successful, The Mummy nevertheless boasted an infectious blend of high adventure, low-scare horror, and special effects that transformed it into a crowd-pleaser capable of sating the early summer audience until The Phantom Menace came along a few weeks later. Now, Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser), Evie O'Connell (Rachel Weisz), Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah), Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr), and (of course) Im-Ho-Tep (Arnold Vosloo) are all back. Joining them are a couple of notable newcomers: Rick and Evie's son, Alex (Freddie Boath), and the dreaded Scorpion King (WWF mainstay, The Rock).

The story for The Mummy Returns is a meager and muddled affair peppered with deus ex machina contrivances. A cult of power-mad Egyptologists (is there another kind?) have concocted a plan by which they can obtain world domination. First, they must resurrect Im-Ho-Tep, the mummy from the first film. Since they are being led by the ancient priest's re-incarnated girlfriend, Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velazquez), this proves to be surprisingly easy. Then, with his powers restored, Im-Ho-Tep heads off to do battle with the mythical Scorpion King, whose tomb lies in a pyramid at the center of a hidden oasis. In order to find that oasis, Im-Ho-Tep needs an artifact which happens to be in the possession of Alex O'Connell. And, when the boy is kidnapped, that brings his parents, his uncle Jonathan, and their old friend, Ardeth Bay, into the conflict. This results in a lot of chasing around the globe and a climax that features a special effects-laden battle between a large force of humans and an army of decaying, dog-faced creatures.

The fundamental problem underlying The Mummy Returns is the reason that the movie exists in the first place. This is not the byproduct of the creative process; it's an off-shoot of Universal Pictures' greed. The sequel was made not because the filmmakers had a compelling story to tell, but because The Mummy made so much money that a second installment became mandatory. This thought process results in countless pointless and derivative sequels - a class in which The Mummy Returns unquestionably belongs. The plot is just a flimsy excuse to bring back old friends and stick them in a series of cliffhangers. It's low-rent Raiders of the Lost Ark, with high-quality special effects filling in for character development and intelligible storytelling.

Some of the action sequences in The Mummy Returns are fun and the visual effects are more polished and less noticably "fake" than in the previous film. Unfortunately, all of this can't obscure the fact that there is basically no plot. The clash of armies at the end has no purpose beyond showing off the effects mavens' skills at the computer. (In terms of style, it's reminiscent of the war in The Phantom Menace, albeit without the same strong story motivation.) The Mummy Returns has opportunities to do interesting things (at one point, there's a chance to force Im-Ho-Tep and Rick into an uneasy alliance, but that is neatly bypassed). Like the Indiana Jones movies, The Mummy Returns tries to blend low-key humor with a non-stop series of cliffhangers. However, while some of the jokes are funny, the action sequences are only sporadically satisfying, owing primarily to their often preposterous resolutions. And, while Rick possesses a certain charm, he's no Indiana Jones.

Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz rekindle the cute chemistry that existed between their characters in The Mummy. Freddie Boath makes an effective addition to the cast, primarily because he's not as annoying as most movie kids. John Hannah is back as the fatuous Jonathan. Arnold Vosloo's Im-Ho-Tep is subtly diminished, perhaps because he now has to share the spotlight with two other villains. Patricia Velazquez has an expanded role here from the one she essayed in the first film. And the part of The Scorpion King doesn't challenge The Rock's thespian abilities - all he has to do is snarl and look tough - things he is familiar with from his day job.

The Mummy Returns offers one surprise - an unexpectedly poignant dramatic moment in which we feel a surge of sympathy for one of the characters. Unfortunately, it's for one of the bad guys, which makes the ending a downer. Overall, the film probably offers what fans of The Mummy are expecting. The thinner, unnecessarily long storyline notwithstanding, this is essentially more of the same. It's hollow, lightweight entertainment - not unpleasant, but far from the summer's definitive action/adventure flick.

Mummy Returns, The (United States, 2001)

Run Time: 2:08
U.S. Release Date: 2001-05-04
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1