When it’s on: Sunday, 28 December (2.50 pm)
Stephen Sommers’s 1999 update of The Mummy reimagined Universal’s classic monster movie from 67 years earlier as an action adventure, more in the style of an Indiana Jones romp than the sombre horror fable starring Boris Karloff. Whilst not an especially good film, it was fun, action packed, featured two cheerful leads in Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, and made a ton of money for its studio. This writer had a shameless blast watching it, as opposed to the overall sense of disappointment that came with Star Wars I: The Phantom Menace, which was out in the UK a month later.
A sequel was inevitable, and arrived in 2001 with The Mummy Returns, assembling the original cast and introducing a new villain in the shape of the Scorpion King, played by Dwayne Johnson, who was better known then as professional wrestler, The Rock. The concern with following The Mummy was that it had been a self-contained story. Weisz’s character, Evie, was an adorable and scatty librarian whose plotline pretty much ended with her happy-ever-after marriage to Rick (Fraser). The mummy, Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), was dead (again), his dreams of reuniting with lost love, Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez) forever thwarted. To create grounds for a follow-up, Sommers – who was responsible for its screenplay – needed to expand the legend, and so Evie was reimagined as the reincarnation of the Pharoah’s daughter, a witness to his slaying at Imhotep’s hands. Rick was now some sort of earthly champion, and to add to the fun they had a precocious eight year old son, Alex (Freddie Boath). The plot followed their unearthing of evidence about the long lost Scorpion King, a legendary warrior who sold his soul to Anubis in order to lead an undead army against the ancient Kingdom of Egypt. In the meantime, dark forces led by the similarly reincarnated – sigh – Anck-Su-Namun sought to revive Imhotep (again)…
More expensive than The Mummy and relying heavily on CGI effects, a constant feature of Sommers’s big budget movies, it’s a lightweight affair with the plot serving only to string the action sequences together. As a film made during an earlier age of computer generated effects, it looks increasingly dated, never more so than when the Scorpion King makes his appearance, now completely digitalised and looking for all the world like a cartoon character has stumbled onto a live action set. Rightly, it’s been criticised as a dismal use of CGI, but the King is only the tip of an iceberg, computers spitting out armies of doglike warriors that stretch across the entire screen and yet without any weight because they are not well rendered and you just know they aren’t really there.
Much of what made the 1999 ‘original’ such an enjoyable watch has been lost, most importantly the chemistry between Weisz and Fraser, two likeable characters who had chemistry and sparked in their scenes together. Little of that remains, given up for endless action scenes and efforts to rush the film along to the next set piece. Weisz’s bookish character colliding with Fraser channelling Harrison Ford propelled The Mummy, but that’s all gone as both have been invested with new ‘special’ powers just to make the narrative tick. Watching it is a little bit like playing a Tomb Raider game, clicking through the cinematic linking sequences to dive straight into the next raid.
It’s not entirely bad. Boath belies just about every terrible child actor by emerging as pretty good fun, particularly when he gets an opportunity to be cheeky to Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s imposing captor, which he does with relish. John Hannah returns as Evie’s useless brother, basically inserted into the story to add comic buffonery, and gives the film some much needed relief from the chases and special effects.
More of these light touches and attempts at characterisation might have made The Mummy Returns a better film. The aim, however, appears to be to fill every moment on the screen with action, to such an extent that it becomes tiresome. Most moments feature CGI effects, shot after shot of some undead thing hollering at one of the heroes, and it’s the kind of picture where even a cloud or tidal wave transmorphs into the face of an antagonist, as though Sommers could not resist that one extra step beyond reality. Alan Silvestri’s score plays furiously throughout, competing for attention with the never ending action and getting lost amidst the mess of stuff slapped onto the screen.
The Mummy Returns: **