An entire generation of kids are growing up on the new Mummy films, just as I grew up on the Indiana Jones films, and perhaps in 20 years, today’s kids will look back as fondly and geekily at The Mummy as we thirtysomethings (cough, wheeze) reminisce about Raiders of the Lost Ark. Thank God the new series actually earns its place at the adventure table. 1999’s The Mummy and its new sequel, The Mummy Returns, are unapologetic wedges of pop cheese — packed to the rafters with thrills, spills, explosions, monsters, and above all, humor. These movies not only laugh at themselves, they crack themselves up.
The sequel unfolds in 1933, eight years after the original; in that time, stalwart adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and plucky researcher Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) have married and had a son, Alex (Freddie Boathe). By my calculations, that means Rick and Evelyn must have conceived Alex five minutes after the first movie’s fade-out, and the movie likewise wastes little time. In a prologue, we meet the Scorpion King (played, in not much of an acting stretch, by the popular WWF wrestler The Rock), an ancient warrior who … um … does something to displease the gods, or something to please them, or something (I never give the plots of these movies the time of day), and centuries later he is due to rise again and conquer the world with his Army of Anubis, or something.
As per the movie’s title, though, Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) is brought back to life, with the help of the reincarnation of his lost love Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez), to do battle with the Scorpion King. So … that makes Imhotep a good guy, right? Well, not really, since his minions are prepared to kill, not to mention kidnap Evelyn and/or Alex, to achieve their goal. So it’s up to Rick, Evelyn, her craven brother Jonathan (John Hannah), and returning desert warrior Ardath Bay (Oded Fehr) — all of whom, one hopes, enjoyed their eight years of relaxation — to stop Imhotep, Anck-Su-Namun, the Scorpion King, and anyone else who remotely resembles a reincarnation of ancient gods, plants, or minerals.
Stephen Sommers has written and directed both films as if he were a precocious boy bashing action figures together when he isn’t gobbling down neat-o myths and legends of Egypt; if he wants to go for a third outing with Rick, Evelyn, and God knows what other metaphysical beasts, he may have a trilogy to rival the other Steve’s. Sommers definitely has a lead worthy of Harrison Ford in his prime; Brendan Fraser brings intelligence, sarcasm, and a sense of play to his athletics, and Rachel Weisz — so neurasthenic in the recent Enemy at the Gates that she may as well have been Helena Bonham Carter — is pink-cheeked and active again, with the mane of a lioness and the maternal instincts (and fighting instincts) to match.
Will fans of old-school adventures — going back even further than Raiders, to the 1930s serials that inspired everything else in the genre — feel a tiny pang of loss at this high-tech party? Possibly. In one or two sequences, Sommers goes in for the smash-and-grab editing and herky-jerky action of Gladiator, and quite often the computerized beasts are as flatly unreal as the now-quaint-looking latex and light shows of the Indy series. But Sommers also stages several peerless bits: a chase aboard a double-decker bus pursued by Imhotep’s fearsome guards; a run-in with vicious pygmy mummies gleefully ripped off from Jurassic Park and Gremlins; the final three-way throwdown between Rick, Imhotep, and the Scorpion King (whose unconvincing digitally-mapped facial features are clunky enough to reassure us that Hollywood can’t do away with actors just yet¹).
The whole two-hours-plus affair just soars along, brainlessly and breathlessly, just like in the ancient days of 1981. The Mummy films come along just in time to save kids from growing up with nothing but Pokemon and George Lucas’ joyless reprise of his Star Wars tax write-off. For that alone, they have my gratitude. For returning me to the wide-eyed age of eleven for a handful of hours, they have my affection.
¹This is putting it kindly. Seen at a remove of a decade or more, the Scorpion King in this movie looks irredeemably shitty.