The Mummy (1999)
With most movies, you know within the first five minutes whether you’re in for a good time or a dreary evening. The Mummy begins with an ancient-Egypt sequence that evokes The Ten Commandments, only with female attire that pushes the PG-13 envelope, so I knew we were on cheerful ground. Right off the bat, Jerry Goldsmith’s overcaffeinated score blasts us out of our seats, and we’re treated to murder, mutilation, and mummification even before the title comes on. The Mummy has a loose, confident stride; it revels in its own retro-ness, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Imagine the Spielberg of Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Sam Raimi of Army of Darkness, and you’ll be somewhere in the ballpark.
The premise has been pop hokum for 67 years, since the original 1932 version starring Boris Karloff. That version, which Pauline Kael appreciatively called “a bad dream of undying love,” combined the then-recent “Curse of Tutankhamen” news stories with elements of Universal’s big hits of the previous year, Dracula and Frankenstein. Karloff’s mummy Imhotep was smitten with a reincarnation of his lover from 3,000 years hence; the new mummy, played alternately by impressive CG animation and Arnold Vosloo, isn’t interested in the leading lady romantically — he wants to sacrifice her to resurrect his dead tootsie. So much for undying love.
This Mummy avoids the beauty-and-the-beast story, a cliche which by now has become older than Imhotep, and goes full steam ahead. Brendan Fraser helps a lot; as Rick O’Connell, a cartoonishly heroic adventurer, he’s Indiana Jones for the jaded ’90s (though the movie’s set in 1926). Rick always finds himself neck-deep in marauding warriors or mummies (or both), which he then has to shoot or slash his way through. Fraser is a likable and intelligent presence, capably matched by British beauty Rachel Weisz as an eager archivist named Evelyn, who, in one of my favorite moments, gets drunk and declares, “I’m proud of who I am! I am … a librarian!”
Essentially, The Mummy is a comedy — an outsize thrill ride, loud and teeming with (generally) well-crafted effects and scares. You have, of course, the obligatory scenes with the heroes poking around in a dark tomb; since these are the only quiet moments in the film, you just know something’s about to pounce, and it usually does. You have comic relief in the form of Evelyn’s fairly useless brother (John Hannah) and a cowardly, backstabbing Arab named Beni (the scene-stealing Kevin J. O’Connor). You have a wonderfully odd scene in which a blinded, de-tongued victim of Imhotep appears to be having tea with the mummy and his new friend Beni. You have ravishing eye candy in the form of golden-tinged camerawork by ace cinematographer Adrian Biddle (Thelma & Louise). You have the useful factoid that cats scare off mummies — as good a reason as any to keep Fluffy around.
What you don’t have, particularly, is a plot, but Stephen Sommers (Deep Rising) has directed his own screenplay so briskly that it hardly matters. Sommers doesn’t toss in any needless complications: The mummy wants the woman, and has to be stopped. This is the basic plot of any adventure movie, by the way: The bad guys want something valuable, and the good guys have to make sure the bad guys don’t get it. In this case, “it” is the heroine. Sexist? Sure, but we’re talking 1926. Like Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies, The Mummy is a tongue-in-cheek look at the sexual/racial politics and entertainment of a much less PC era — an homage to what we enjoyed as kids before we were told why we shouldn’t enjoy it. But what we enjoyed was the spookiness and the seat-of-the-pants escapes, and the movie has both to spare. On some level, no doubt, it’s dumb and obvious, but it’s dumb and obvious in just the right ways.