Friday, June 1, 2001

The Mummy Returns / ***1/2 (2001)

Stephen Sommers’ “The Mummy” is chiefly thought of as a lightweight and brainless action adventure, but that’s probably exactly why it became one of the biggest hits of the 1999 summer movie season. Filled with endless plot absurdities and cheesy CGI effects, the highly successful action adventure starring Brendan Fraser as an adventuresome grave-robber impeccably captured the proper essence of the conventional summer release: the movie where a plot doesn’t matter and characters are secondary to an incessant ride of surprises and thrills. Critics faulted it for being “silly” and “unbelievable,” but think about this for one moment: compared to the “Indiana Jones” franchise, just exactly how silly and unbelievable would you call it?

“The Mummy Returns,” Universal’s inevitable sequel to the two-year-old box office hit, is more of the same, only with less story, less character development, and action so fast that, without the benefit of flat screens, might have given audiences whiplash. But that doesn’t make it any less exciting, needless to say, because it sprawls with so much visual and technical energy that, even with downright insulting effects and plot points, we are left enthralled by the feathery and colorful substance. In fact, it might not be so ridiculous to say that the follow-up is actually more satisfying than its predecessor.

The opening scenes of the picture scribe a series of ancient events to serve as the foundation for the movie’s many brushes with action and danger. In them, we learn that a powerful warrior called the Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson, better known as WWF’s The Rock) sought out to, in one way or another, conquer the free world and assume position as its highest authority. Unfortunately, a heated battle between his army and an opposing one led to catastrophe, and just before the towering fighter could be consumed by the harshness of the desert, he struck a deal with the gods, giving him the power (and the army) to seek revenge against the city that defeated him, ultimately all in exchange for his own life.

Flash forward to 1933, eight years after the initial occurrences of the first “Mummy” film took place. Adventure-seeker Rick O’Connell (Fraser) is now married to beautiful Egyptologist Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), and both have a mischievous son named Alex (Freddie Boath). Settled in London, they have just managed to snag a legendary artifact from an ancient Egyptian city that once belonged to the legendary Scorpion King, just a hair faster than a group of thugs assigned to retrieve the artifact for a museum curator.

The reason for such an undertaking? He and a raven-haired vixen named Meela are plotting to revive the infamous “Mummy” himself, Imhotep, from his grave, and dispatch him on a mission to find the burial site of the Scorpion King, slay him when he is scheduled to reawaken, and then assume leadership of his powerful army in order to rule the world (or something to that effect). Naturally, the gravediggers need that artifact in order to find out exactly where the Scorpion King is located, and that factor catapults the familiar characters into a new web of adventure and intrigue that will either preserve the world or seal its fate. Along the way, they face determined enemies, travel in an airship, and even come in close contact with dangerous mummified native pigmies who look like cremated Ewoks.

One of the best moves the movie makes is using the same cast that was featured in the first film. Fraser is back as the wisecracking Rick, as is Rachel Weisz, who plays the clumsy (but very much informed) historian of Ancient Egyptian architecture and legends. Oded Fehr reprises his role as a mysterious desert warrior dedicated to preserving the secrecy of the desert’s many hidden wonders, and the admirable Arnold Vosloo is back as Imhotep, the treacherous ancient tyrant hell-bent on revenge and world domination. Take immediate notice, though, of Patricia Velazquez, the curator’s sexpot assistant whom, even without eventual verbal confirmation, will be immediately recognized by those who saw the first “Mummy” as the reincarnation of Imhotep’s lover, Anack-Su-Namun.

As the director and writer here, Sommers is fearless in letting both his narrative and visuals get extremely complex, most likely because he doesn’t expect anyone to take the material seriously to begin with. This gives the movie a very broad scope of possibilities, and without logic ever playing a role in the situations, almost anything that can happen usually does. Sure many of the plot points are totally unbelievable. Sure several of the digital effects are obvious and overdone. But should that matter when the director’s intent is simply to go for mindless entertainment? Not in this case. “The Mummy Returns” is founded on the notion that moviegoers can have good times at the movies even without a serious concept, and it shouldn’t be perceived as anything more than that.

In the end, the only damaging blunder the movie makes is in its unfair attempt to sort of “humanize” the Imhotep character. Arnold Vosloo knows the look and act of a foreboding villainous figure like his, but unlike the first movie, where he was clearly established as an unstoppable Godlike presence, the sequel uses him merely as a bridging device to deliver the adventurers to their intended location, stopping only a couple of times along the way to impose some of his own damage (one scene of which, involving a wall of water between the crevices of high cliffs, is extremely effective). Towards the very end, when Imhotep is put in a situation that forces him to cower down from his twisted intentions, we actually start to feel like we’ve been robbed of our imperative antagonist.

But taking in the total package, this minor detail is not a very significant drawback to the product as a whole, so that’s okay. What we ultimately have here is the perfect introduction to a summer that could likely be filled with all sorts of wondrous cinematic possibilities. Hopefully the journey through the next four months will be as endlessly exciting as this starting point.

Written by DAVID KEYES

Action/Adventure (US); 2001; Rated PG-13; 121 Minutes

Brendan Fraser: Rick O'Connell
Rachel Weisz: Evelyn Carnahan O'Connell
John Hannah: Jonathan Carnahan
Arnold Vosloo: Imhotep
Dwayne Johnson: The Scorpion King
Freddie Boath: Alex O'Connell
Patricia Velazquez: Anack-Su-Namun
Oded Fehr: Ardeth Bay

Produced by Sean Daniel, Bob Ducsay, James Jacks and Don Zepfel; Directed and screenwritten by Stephen Sommers

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