Mummy, The (United States, 1999)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Mummy is pretty silly stuff. But that's okay when you consider that, beneath all the action/adventure and horror trappings, it's actually a comedy. Think of a big-budget, high profile effort in the vein of Sam Raimi's Army of Darkness with less camp and better special effects. The Mummy never takes itself seriously, and neither should we. It's a good thing it is funny because, as a thriller, it's an underwhelming effort. I suppose there are times when The Mummy makes an attempt to get the adrenaline pumping, but it never tries too hard. In the end, it's the self-mocking aura that save this film from being a waste of two hours.

Despite having the same title as the 1932 Boris Karloff flick, The Mummy is only a remake in the broadest sense of the word. With the exception of a few general plot details, almost everything has shifted, including the tone. Fans of Universal's black-and-white movie may recognize the seeds of the same storyline here, but nothing more. Even the characters' names have been changed, with one notable exception (Imhotep, the high priest who is cursed to become the mummy). It's reasonable that director Stephen Sommers (Deep Rising) takes sole screenwriting credit.

Following a prologue in 1290 B.C. Egypt that shows Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) being cursed and buried alive, The Mummy takes us to Cairo in 1923, where British librarian Evelyn Carnarvon (Rachel Weisz, far less wooden here than in Swept from the Sea) and her brother, Jonathan (John Hannah, from Sliding Doors), are joining American adventurer Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) on a trip to the lost city of Hamunaptra, where they hope to discover a tomb full of treasure. Pursued by a band of fortune hunters and stalked by a cadre of mysterious, black-robed nomads, Rick and his small party eventually reach their destination. However, their expedition turns into a disaster when they unwittingly release Imhotep's mummy. The seemingly indestructible creature has three goals: release the ten Biblical plagues on Egypt, regenerate itself, and resurrect its long-dead lover. It quickly becomes apparent that Rick, Jonathan, and Evelyn (aided by a white cat) may be the only ones capable of stopping Imhotep's evil spirit. At one point, Rick acknowledges that his mission is to "rescue the damsel in distress, kill the bad guy, [and] save the world."

Advance quotes from studio-friendly reviewers trumpet The Mummy as being an exciting thrill-ride in the tradition of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Such statements are hyperbole. When it comes to action and adventure, The Mummy is strictly routine. The movie is far too cartoonish to generate genuine tension – we never sense that any of the characters (at least the three major ones) are in real danger. Consequently, The Mummy's entertainment value lies in its jokey tone, with Sommers' script never taking its tongue out of its cheek. Almost every moment of this movie is played for fun, from the barbed one-liners to an underlying sense of parody. Comparisons to Army of Darkness are apt. Rick's battles with the walking dead are often quite comical, and, while Brendan Fraser doesn't have the deadpan aptitude of Bruce Campbell, he's still effective in a role that's an obvious lampoon of Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones.

The special effects are clearly state-of-the-art, although they're too obviously just that – special effects. Maybe I'm becoming jaded, but I knew exactly when a computer was being used, and, as crisp as everything looked, I rarely believed in what I was seeing. The effects are not seamlessly integrated. There are plenty of examples of when the latest technology is brought to bear to enhance the visuals – swarms of bugs, a storm of flaming hailstones, a giant wave of wind-driven sand, the walking dead, etc. – but few have the kind of natural appearance that allows us to accept what we see without questioning the means by which it has been added to the frame.

Another flaw in The Mummy's wrapping is that it's at least 30 minutes too long. The first hour drags noticeably and there are several sequences during the second half that could have been condensed. It's not surprising that the film clocks in at a little over two hours, since there seems to be an unwritten rule in Hollywood that all "event" motion pictures must be as long as possible. That's fine if the material warrants it, but too often the padding becomes obvious. Sommers should have taken a lesson from Barry Sonnenfeld's Men in Black – especially when there's a comic undertone, shorter is often better.

Expectations will likely color most movie-goers' opinions of The Mummy. Those who buy a ticket anticipating a high-octane appetizer to The Phantom Menace will be disappointed. On the other hand, those who are primed for a ludicrous adventure/horror parody will discover that The Mummy has the potential to satisfy. Considering how many would-be blockbusters fail at that simple task, it's possible to forgive this movie many of its numerous faults and enjoy it for what it is trying to achieve, not what the marketing campaign claims it to be.

Mummy, The (United States, 1999)

Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 1999-05-07
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1