Many cinephiles view director Stephen Sommers as the cinematic equivalent of Satan, and with everything that has gone horribly wrong with Hollywood blockbuster films. And, to be fair, with films like Van Helsing (2004) and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) on a not-too impressive resume (in fact, looking over his filmography, there’s only one film of his I like), he’s hardly a filmmaker one equates with quality but I will admit to being quite fond of The Mummy (1999). As far as Indiana Jones rip-offs go, it is not that bad. If that sounds like faint praise, I don’t mean it to be as Sommers’ film is actually a lot of fun and entertaining as hell. It is the very popular re-imagining of the old Boris Karloff classic and would go on to spawn two inferior sequels and transform Brendan Fraser into a bonafide leading man. Up to that point he had a reputation for starring in forgettable comedies like Encino Man (1992), The Scout (1994) and Airheads (1994). With The Mummy, he demonstrated some serious action film chops with a hint of romantic leading man qualities that were complimented by his knack for comedy, thankfully doled out in relative moderation this time. The end result is a satisfying popcorn movie with no other agenda than to entertain.
It’s 1923 and the French Foreign Legion engage the Medjai, descendents of Pharaoh Seti I, in battle at the legendary Hamunaptra, the City of the Dead. When his superior officer deserts, Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) finds himself in charge, much to his chagrin. It certainly is an exciting way to introduce our leading man as he and his fellow soldiers attempt to stand their ground on the city walls as the Medjai attack in wave after wave. Brendan Fraser shows some decent action film skills as his character valiantly tries to stay alive despite being overwhelmed by superior numbers and abandoned by his cowardly sidekick (and comic relief) Beni (Kevin J. O’Connor). Rick narrowly escapes and runs off into the desert where the Medjai leave him to die.
Three years later in Cairo we meet bookish librarian Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) at the Museum of Antiquities as she single-handedly manages to topple over a room full of towering bookcases like dominoes when she attempts to shelve a book. It’s a cute bit of slapstick that establishes Evelyn as one of the most not-so graceful people on the planet. With her hair tied up and sporting a thick-rimmed pair of glasses, the film’s greatest special effect may be trying to convince us that the gorgeous Rachel Weisz is a socially awkward bookworm (yeah, right). Evelyn’s application to bigger and better things has been rejected yet again because she doesn’t have enough field experience. Along comes her older ne’er-do-well brother Jonathan (John Hannah) who has discovered a trinket at an archaeological dig in Thebes. Inside it contains a map to the mythic Hamunaptra, the place where the earliest Pharaohs are said to have hidden the wealth of Egypt. No one has ever found it and naturally Evelyn’s boss scoffs at the notion of its very existence.
It turns out that Jonathan actually stole the map from Rick who is rotting away in prison. Jonathan and Evelyn pay him a visit and he agrees to tell them where the City of the Dead is located but only if they free him. They do (and just in the nick of time) and set out for the site with a rival expedition of American fortune hunters also looking for it. As luck would have it, they are led by Beni, setting up a personal rivalry between him and Rick. Both groups arrive at the City of the Dead and split up, each looking for treasure. However, the American fortune seekers uncover a curse that condemns their party to death. Meanwhile, Rick and Evelyn uncover the coffin of Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), the ruler of Hamunaptra and who carried on a forbidden affair with Seti I’s wife Princess Anck-su-namun (Patrica Velasquez). He was buried alive for his indiscretions while she killed herself. Evelyn unlocks the legendary Book of the Dead and reads from it, unwittingly resurrecting Imhotep who proceeds to kidnap Evelyn with the intention of sacrificing her so that his lover will also come back to life. It’s up to Rick, Jonathan and Ardeth Bey (Oded Fehr), the enigmatic leader of the Medjai, to stop Imhotep.
One of the things that makes The Mummy work is the chemistry between Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. At first, Evelyn sees Rick as an uncouth mercenary and he sees her as a naive stuffed shirt. But the more time they spend together, especially in death-defying situations, the more they grow to admire and respect one another. The two actors handle this development quite well and certainly make for an attractive couple with Fraser’s matinee idol good looks and Weisz’s beautiful appearance – a little something for everyone. They manage to transcend the predictable screenplay and often clichéd dialogue through the sheer force of their natural charisma. This is readily apparent in the campfire scene where one night Rick teaches Evelyn a bit about hand-to-hand combat even though she’s had a little too much to drink. She ends up passing out just before they kiss, much to his bemusement. There’s a bit of an old school Hollywood vibe to this scene and to how these actors approach their respective roles that works.
As far as Indiana Jones clones go, Rick doesn’t quite bring the slight air of danger that Harrison Ford brought to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the most obvious influence on The Mummy. Not to mention, Fraser has more hulking boyish good looks as opposed to Ford’s roguish charm. Also, Fraser relies more on comedy than Ford but as far as action-oriented treasure hunters go, you could do worse than Rick O’Connell. Fraser hasn’t really been able to capitalize on the success of this film, appearing in several generic children’s adventure films – although, he showed some promise co-starring with Michael Caine in an adaptation of The Quiet American (2002).
While Evelyn is certainly not as feisty and as capable as Marion in Raiders, she has more of an arc as she goes from sheltered academic to damsel in distress to experienced adventurer. At the time, Weisz was known for appearing in small, independent films and the success of The Mummy would launch her into the A-list stratosphere. She has fared the best of the cast, appearing in delightful romantic comedies like About A Boy (2002) and Definitely, Maybe (2008), and winning an Academy Award for her excellent work in The Constant Gardener (2005).
John Hannah provides much of the film’s humor as Evelyn’s slightly shifty but ultimately harmless grifter brother while Oded Fehr is quite good as the righteous guardian of the City of the Dead. For an underwritten role, he does his best to make a fantastic impression with what screen-time he is given.
Sommers handles the action sequences with refreshing simplicity (something that would be absent from his subsequent films). We always know what’s going on and where everyone is. He clearly took notes while watching Raiders and manages to capture its flair for 1930 cliffhanger serials. The Medjai siege on the boat to Hamunaptra early on in the film is particularly exciting and well-staged, evoking a real Indy Jones vibe.
As with so many big budget tent-pole films for Hollywood studios, The Mummy was a project that gestated for years and went through many hands before it wound up with Sommers. This new version’s origins lie with producer James Jacks who decided in 1992 to update the original film for the 1990s. He struck a deal with Universal Pictures who agreed to back it but only on a budget around $10 million. Jacks remembered that the studio “essentially wanted a low-budget horror franchise.” To this end, he hired filmmaker/writer Clive Barker whose version was about the head of a contemporary art museum built like a pyramid. The man was actually a cultist trying to reanimate mummies. Jacks described it as “dark, sexual and filled mysticism.” Sadly, after several meetings, Barker and Universal lost interest in the project and parted ways.
Once Barker was off the project, George Romero was brought in and he wanted to make a zombie-style horror film along the lines of his legendary feature film debut, Night of the Living Dead (1968). However, Jacks and the studio wanted to make a mainstream film and felt that Romero’s vision was too scary. Next up was Joe Dante with a contemporary reincarnation tale with elements of a love story starring Daniel-Day Lewis as a brooding Mummy. John Sayles even co-wrote the script but Universal was only willing to spend $15 million on his vision. Jacks then offered the project to Mick Garris and also Wes Craven, both of whom passed.
In 1997, Stephen Sommers contacted Jacks with his take on The Mummy “as a kind of Indiana Jones or Jason and the Argonauts with the mummy as the creature giving the hero a hard time.” He saw the original film when he was only 8-years-old and with his version wanted to recreate the things he liked about it only on a bigger scale. He had wanted in on the project since 1993 but other writers or directors were always involved. Seizing a window of opportunity, he prepared an 18-page pitch to Universal. As luck would have it (for Sommers, that is), the studio had taken a bath on Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and in response, decided to revisit its successful franchises from the 1930s. Executives were so thrilled with Sommers’ concept for The Mummy that they increased the budget from $15 million to a staggering $80 million. Once he got the gig, he spent six months researching the film and then eight weeks writing the screenplay.
When it came time to cast Rick O’Connell, Jacks offered the role to Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck but they were either not interested or too busy. Jacks and Sommers were impressed with the box office receipts from George of the Jungle (1997) and cast Brendan Fraser as a result. The actor was drawn to the project because he was looking for an action film and liked the idea that Universal was reinventing one of its properties from the 1930s. For the character, he drew inspiration from the likes of Robin Hood, Buck Rogers and Sinbad. Most importantly, he understood that Rick was the kind of character who didn’t “take himself too seriously, otherwise the audience can’t go on that journey with him.”
The Mummy was shot over three months in Morocco and not in Egypt because of the unstable political conditions there. They also had the official support of the Moroccan army. In a reassuring touch, the cast had kidnapping insurance taken out on them. In addition, the cast and crew had to deal with blinding sandstorms and bad-tempered camels. The production had wranglers on set to catch snakes, scorpions and spiders at the end of every shooting day. This still didn’t prevent many crew members from being airlifted out after being bitten. Everyone also had to worry about dehydration when filming moved to the Sahara desert. The production’s medical team ended up creating a beverage that the cast and crew had to drink every two hours.
Predictably, The Mummy received mixed reviews from critics. Roger Ebert wrote, “There is hardly a thing I can say in its favor, except that I was cheered by nearly every minute of it. I cannot argue for the script, the direction, the acting or even the mummy, but I can say that I was not bored and sometimes I was unreasonably pleased.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B-“ rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “The Mummy would like to make you shudder, but it tries to do so without ever letting go of its jocular inconsequentiality.”
However, the knives came out in The New York Times review as Stephen Holden wrote, “This version of The Mummy has no pretenses to be anything other than a gaudy comic video game splashed onto the screen. Think Raiders of the Lost Ark with cartoon characters, no coherent story line and lavish but cheesy special effects. Think Night of the Living Dead stripped of genuine horror and restaged as an Egyptian-theme Halloween pageant.” USA Today gave the film two out of four stars and felt that it was "not free of stereotypes,” and that “If someone complains of a foul odor, you can be sure an Arab stooge is about to enter a scene. Fraser, equally quick with weapon, fist or quip, may save the day, but even he can't save the picture.”
Looking back, whatever good will Sommers garnered with The Mummy, he has subsequently pissed it all away with The Mummy Returns (2001) which reduced the number of quiet moments that developed the characters and told the story in the first film in favor of wall-to-wall frenetic action and the addition of a bratty child (Rick and Evelyn’s offspring, natch) into the mix. Sommers didn’t return for the third and most disappointing installment (neither did Weisz) which is just as well. The damage had already been done with The Mummy Returns but the first film is still a rousing, entertaining ride.
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