MYTHICITY: (1-2) *fair,* (3) *poor*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure *CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTION: *metaphysical, psychological*
I generally judge horror-films as "dramas" because they principally concern the rise and fall of some type of monster, be it a vampire, a mad scientist, or-- a mummy, like Kharis from this classic Universal series. But films about monster-hunters usually fit better with the category of "adventure." And there's no question in my mind that the "Mummy" series initiated by writer-director Steven Sommers is not about the titular monster, but about the romantically-involved monster-fighting couple Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) and Evy Carnahan (Rachel Weicz).
It's a measure of my respect for the progenitor of all mummy-films, Karl Freund's 1932 THE MUMMY, that I haven't reviewed it here yet, since I think it deserves an analysis about as long as three of my normal posts. Happily, Sommers does not attempt to duplicate the moody charms of the Freund film. Given his priorities, any such attempt probably would not have turned out well. Instead, the script for the 1999 film merely borrows and/or alters names and events from the earlier film, and employs them for one of the better exemplars of the "supernatural tomb raider" genre more or less birthed by the Indiana Jones series.
Many of the romantic bits between Rick and Evy are amusing, particularly their "meet-cute-yet-morbid" scene when soldier-of-fortune Rick, about to be hanged in Egypt, steals a kiss from Egyptologist Evy Carnahan. Needless to say, the hero is spared a grisly death-- though the stunt almost killed actor Brendan Fraser-- and he goes on to assist brash but inexperienced Evy and her cowardly brother in seeking out a lost tomb. They're looking for a legendary magic book, but they also find the remains of Imhotep, court magician to the Pharaoh Seti I. Evy reads aloud a spell from the book, which returns the mummy to life. Like the Imhotep played by Boris Karloff in the 1932 film, this mummy is a magician rather than a mute bandage-swathed killer. But where Karloff's character could only bring about very limited spells, this Imhotep can conjure forth the sort of phenomena one might associate with an angry god-- a plague of locusts, a hostile sandstorm. Indeed, when one sees what the modern Imhotep can do, one can hardly believe mere mortal Egyptians overpowered him back in The Day. As a meaningless tip of the hat to the Freund film, an Egyptian warrior who seeks to keep Imhotep dead is given the phony name Karloff's character assumes in the 1932 work: "Ardath Bey."
Sommers' feel for light-hearted action is sure, but he makes no effort to ground his story of a malevolent magician in a credible fantasy-structure. One of THE MUMMY's greatest inconsistencies is that when Imhotep wants to send deadly curses after those who have raided his tomb and that of his beloved, he patterns his spells after the plagues sent against Egypt by the Jewish leader Moses. I can understand Sommers not bothering to research archaic Egyptian magical practices, but why would an Egyptian magician want to copy from Moses-- who, in theory, was calling on magic from a monotheistic deity having nothing in common with Egypt's many deities? The real answer, I suppose, is that Sommers guessed that most moviegoers would know nothing about Egypt beyond what appears in the Old Testament, and so he played to that. Additionally, the romantic travails of the 1932 Imhotep are made secondary to those of the living monster-hunting couple, though the former "grand passion" does assume greater importance in the sequel.
THE MUMMY RETURNS is a more frenetic film, but it works better, given that here Sommers has totally committed to his project of creating a phony-baloney Egypt with no connections to the real culture. Rick and Evy are now a married couple with a ten-year-old son. A cult devoted to Imhotep revives the wizard-mummy again, but this time for a world-beating project. It seems that in ancient times a warrior named Mathayus entered into a pact with the death-god Anubis. This Anubis, who functions like a bargain-basement version of Satan, creates an unstoppable army for the warrior in exchange for his soul. Mathayus gets his conquest, but then ends up the monstrous slave of the jackal-god. The cult wants Imhotep to vanquish Mathayus, aka "the Scorpion King," in order to gain control of his immortal army.
In addition, Imhotep-- who was trying to reincarnate his lost love Anck-su-Namun in the first film by sticking her soul in Evy's body-- meets up with Meela, the genuine descendant of his Egyptian princess. However, the cult still needs an artifact in the possession of the O'Connells, which places them, their son, and assorted other allies in conflict with Imhotep's plans. The son is kidnapped, the anguished parents give pursuit, and Imhotep manages to cause the soul of Anck-su-Namun to come to conscious life in Meela's body. An unlooked-for consequence of this, however, is that half-Egyptian Evy O'Connell is stimulated into reliving her own ancestral memories. It seems Evy was Nefertiri, daughter of the Pharaoh Seti I, and that she witnessed her daddy being slain by his evil mistress Anck-su-Namun and her cover lover Imhotep. This leads to a running bitch-battle between Evy and Meela, who, in Freudian terms, are incarnations of a dutiful daughter and the Bad Woman who tries to take her father from her. The Oedipal scenario doesn't really work, though, because Evy is not drawn toward this Imhotep in the manner that Helen Grosvenor is to the original magician-mummy.
Even though MUMMY RETURNS is overstuffed with incidents-- not least the intrusion of the Scorpion King character, tailor-made to further the Hollywood career of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson-- this strategy plays well to Sommers' strengths, and the result is a fast-paced farrago of crazed set-pieces, particularly the sword-duel between two Egyptian warrior princesses, seen above. This film would have been a good conclusion to a lightweight but moderately entertaining series.
Unfortunately, seven years later, the studio tried once more to go mining for mummies, and to sum it up with mixed metaphors, this was one too many trips back to the well. Someone must have surmised that there wasn't much more they could do with-- or to-- Egyptian mummies, they decided to go out for Chinese-- that is, Chinese terracotta warriors, yet another undead army. This one is supposed to serve the evil Dragon Emperor (Jet Li), who aspires to world conquest back during some Chinese feudal era. The "forbidden love" triangle from the first two films is all but xeroxed off, with the Emperor getting peeved when his Number Two Man, a fellow named Ming, gets it on with Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh), the same witch who made the Emperor's triumph possible. The Emperor kills Ming, but Zi Yuan gets even by cursing the Emperor and his army into suspended animation.
After recounting this archaic setup, the film shuttles to 1946. The O'Connells are semi-retired, while their now adult son Alex has gone into the tomb raiding business, despite his general feelings that Mommy and Daddy haven't paid him enough attention. Alex uncovers, and unleashes, the Dragon Emperor, despite the efforts of a kung-fu cutie named Lin (Isabelle Leong), who takes over the function of Holy Warrior Ardath Bey in the previous films. Lin is the daughter of Zi Yuan, who's been hanging around for centuries in Shangri-La for just this occasion.
There are a few minor entertainments in TOMB. The CGI Yetis were decent, and the DVD shows an alternate ending in which cowardly Jonathan flees China for a locale supposedly free of mummies-- and chooses the one place in South America known for "Mayan mummies." But most of the film is deadly-dull despite all the fights and chases. As the photo above shows, there's a martial-arts duel between Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, but it's a waste of time next to the highly kinetic martial battles both actors have produced in earlier films. Maria Bello replaces Weicz in the role of Evy O'Connell, and gets some equally good fight-scenes, but the "rekindled romance" angle between the monster-battling couple suffers from tired blood.
Frankly, the most significance I can find in the MUMMY series was that Sommers invented "fast mummies" long before anyone came up with "fast zombies." But that innovation didn't eventuate in any great wealth of new mummy movies, fast or slow.