Trilogy Review: The Mummy

Despite The Mummy franchise derives from themes of Life after Death, and that “death is only the beginning”, it has certainly gotten more rotten and dead after each resurrection.

Doesn’t spell much hope for Universal Studio’s “Dark Universe” kickstarter The Mummy, the 2017 film starring action hero Tom Cruise… Mostly because fans today covet the Brendan Fraser comedy antics of the trilogy, but also because The Mummy does not scream “Tom Cruise action film”, and another direction should have been taken.

Of course, the first 1999 Brendan Fraser film was a successful action movie. But as I have discovered through this rather fruitless venture, watching the trilogy, that film was lightning in a bottle. Unlikely to happen again.

And no, I am in no hurry to review The Scorpion King.

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The Mummy (1999)

Ahh, 90s fantasy action movies. The Mummy is a great example of cheesy, overblown but infectiously fun movie making.

A timid British librarian and her brother team up with an American soldier to explore the ancient Egyptian City of the Dead. But with another team challenging them to find the treasures buried there first, a curse is enacted and the mummified remains of Imhotep, priest of the dead, is brought to life.

Director Stephen Sommers started out directing Disney’s first live-action interpretation of The Jungle Book, and would go on to direct Van Helsing and the first G.I. Joe movie, but 1999’s The Mummy should be considered lightning in a bottle. Arguably the film is utter nonsense, but it is very obvious that the cast and crew were having a great time.

Here, Universal Studios outright abandoned any sense of horror or dread in this new interpretation of their monster, in fact to compare this with the Boris Karloff 1932 movie is impossible. Nothing remains of the original except two or three names. Sommers’ film is an outright action comedy with an Indiana Jones quality of scares and suspense. Front and centre is Brendan Fraser (more known as George of the Jungle at this point in time) being a googly-eyed, clean-shaven tough guy, and Rachel Weisz as a dotty librarian. There’s a host of other characters, some might say too many characters for such a simple action movie. Weisz’s character Evelyn’s brother Jonathan (John Hannah) is the at-times-insufferable comic relief, Oded Fehr plays a magi warrior who defends the City of the Dead, Kevin J. O’Connor plays a slimeball called Beni who tussles with Fraser with great physical performances, Erick Avari plays a scholar, there’s a slew of American treasure hunters and also Omid Djalili was there, probably contractually obligated to feature. We’ve not even got to the Mummy yet!

The film has the most perpetual state of action and chaos I’ve ever seen, almost permanently set at ten and occasionally pushed to eleven. If we aren’t witnessing a cavalry charge, we are seeing someone escaping a hanging, if we aren’t seeing a man consumed by scarab beetles, we are seeing a boat explode. This film has incredible stamina.
Which does make it something of an endurance to watch, but it never feels entirely repetitive (example: Die Hard 5) it does maintain creativity and steady escalation of threat, as well as plenty of characters of varying importance that we can grimly kill off along the way. Quipping all the while.

Perhaps my biggest conflict with The Mummy is in its special effects, because sometimes the effects here are incredible! Other times… they look really bad. I can remember the effects being bad in 1999! The monster, Imhotep, here played by Arnold Vosloo, swings wildly between convincing and really fake between scenes, between kinda scary and deliberately cartoonish. He never feels truly threatening physically, only when the camera cuts away as he kills another victim.
His mummified guards and priests however, can be very convincing! A definite mix of practical effects, physical performances and CG tinkering makes them more Jurassic Park than Van Helsing. Something that the 1990s had that has been lost recently is a great use of production value; set designs, costume design and action set pieces are all pretty great here.

There’s a lot of fun to be had with The Mummy; the film knows what it is, it is tonally perfected, everyone is on board and giving their best. It is an odd direction to take your monster movie franchise, but they jumped into it with both feet and deserve the credit.

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The Mummy Returns (2001)

What phenomenally awful “bigger-is-better” film-making.

The reincarnation of Ancient Egyptian princess Anck-Su-Namun seeks to revive her love, the priest of the dead, Imhotep, while the heroic explorers Rick and Evelyn uncover the secret of The Scorpion King, a tyrant blessed by the deity Anubis.

Honestly, I don’t really know what’s going on.

It isn’t hard to imagine this film being released less than two years after the original, a rapid fire cash-in on what Universal Studios must have seen as a surprise success. I do remember watching this upon release and not liking it then, and time has done it no favours either.

The positives, there’s still a good amount of production value here; set, creature and costume designs are often impressive. The action is certainly creative all the way through the run time (even if much of it is retreads of the original) and the casting reprise their roles and go through familiar hi-jinx and antics with gusto.
That’s about it.

The computer generated imagery in The Mummy Returns is rampant, even catastrophic at times. We are immediately introduced to an army of Anubian warriors; dog-headed berserkers who are entirely CG, presumably seeing The Phantom Menace two years earlier suggested this was an okay thing to do in blockbuster cinema. We also see “The Rock” – later in his film career known as Dwayne Johnson – looking younger and decidedly not the size of a house yet, as The Scorpion King.
Cut to 1933 and we discover our heroes Evelyn and Rick are married and have an eight year old son, Alex, and if this film took anything else from The Phantom Menace that it shouldn’t have… it would be “annoying blonde child actors who can’t act”. God, he is absolutely insufferable and kills the first and second acts stone dead, going from: “Wah, stop treating me like a kid!” to, “How should I know, I’m only eight!” within minutes. Or the immortal line: “My dad is going to kick your arse.” All in a wonderfully unbearable English accent. Oh, he also speaks fluent ancient Egyptian, believably…
I could go on and on about… Freddie Boath… and his “acting”, but how is everyone else? Well, retconned mostly. Rick (Brendan Fraser) is revealed to have a tattoo on his arm no one noticed before that means he is of an ancient line of magi, protectors of the world. Or something, it is briefly explained between scenes of excessive carnage. While Evelyn is having lucid visions of ancient Egypt for no discernible reason except to keep the “plot” moving, much like the woman who is the reincarnation of Imhotep’s ancient squeeze who apparently knows everything even before getting the princess’s soul put into her. Evelyn has also miraculously evolved from terrified bookworm into a badass swordswoman!
Oh, and Dwayne Johnson turns into a horrendous CG garbage fire and is probably the only thing you will remember from watching this film.

It rinses and repeats moments from the first film, which can be fun if you like repetition, but the film prioritises insane attempts to up the action on a film that was already bursting with action! This film… does not stop. There’s maybe two moments of slow, uninterrupted dialogue after the first twenty minutes, and almost all of it is exposition, after that it is a constant barrage of chaos. Ten minute chase sequence. Twenty seconds of pause, “everything is okay”. Oh no it isn’t! Back to the action again!
There’s simply nothing here to make you care, especially when Evelyn and Rick lose their son, sort of a big deal. But when we’ve seen nothing of a family bond between them (borderline terrible parenting) no quiet scene of loving parents with their only child, no emotional resonance at all, when it comes round to tearful “Oh, I can’t lose him!” speeches, it falls on deaf ears. No one cares.

It lacks the first film’s simplicity by over-writing the stakes, it lacks the first film’s charm by choking the characters with excessive action sequences and CGI, and despite the “family” involved the single pang of emotion felt was for Imhotep. The guy trying to kill everyone!

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The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

Oh boy, I hadn’t seen Tomb of the Dragon Emperor until now due to the weight of backlash it received on release. It certainly isn’t great.

Rick and Evelyn are called back into action to return an artifact to China conveniently at the same time their son Alex, now old enough to go on his own adventures, digs up the remains of a mummified Chinese tyrant and his army. Unsurprisingly, the dead are reanimated, and they must stop the emperor from attaining immortality.

Even writing a synopsis, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor just sounds like the cliff notes of the original movies and there’s a distinct by-the-numbers feel to the movie in general. We start off with a long backstory for the titular The Dragon Emperor, narrated by the talented Michelle Yeoh, heaps of exposition and multiple locations making it quite a dry experience to start off with.
We then find our heroes Rick and Evelyn retired, with Brendan Fraser reprising along with Maria Bello….. wait what?? No Rachel Weisz? Seriously?
Yes, while there’s no criticising an actress called in to do a recast, a recast is a terrible choice to make in any film, especially when Fraser and Weisz had good chemistry over the last two films. In fact despite what I’ve said about those films, the lead actors made them fun. Maria Bello (Prisoners, but also Grown Ups) does not cut it as a replacement for Weisz here; her performance feels very stiff and has none of the bookworm flightiness or sassy-ness the character relished in.

So that threw me for most of the film. The third film was released seven years after The Mummy duology, and direction was taken over by Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, that being the first one, for clarity) who claims an invested interest in Chinese culture and history. Certainly the film still has decent production value like the first two movies; the Dragon Emperor and his legion, mummies that are clad in terracotta, makes for inventive visuals after the atrophy of two movies with exactly the same story. This film has a varied colour palette too, we travel to snowy mountains and monsters include the aforementioned terracotta soldiers and iron horses. It also has some desire to slow down occasionally, unlike its adrenaline-junkie predecessors.
Also yetis…
Not… sure who thought friendly yetis were what was missing from this film, but they are there.

But everything is pretty uninspired or bland. Once again we gravitate towards huge armies mashing together, only this time its mummy-vs-mummy (you get more stakes in a Dracula movie) and while there is thankfully less CGI tomfoolery, they couldn’t help having Jet Li turning into a hydra for… some… reason.
The writing is abysmal and rather sad. Gone are the cheesy, punchy quips of the first movie. Did Rick just have a dick-measuring contest in regards to guns… with his own son??
Even Jet Li is barely in this film, he could have been played by anyone. But they tried riding on the coattails of 2003’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by casting him and Yeoh but failed in a most lackluster fashion.

Without Rachel Weisz, or Stephen Sommers directing, and with a different set of writers, no amount of inventive design work or change of scenery will fix what is wrong with this film. Is it as bad as everyone says? In isolation, not really. In relation to the first two, the first film is still above and beyond, but this isn’t much worse than the second movie.

I’d say you can avoid this one.

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