This article appeared in Issue 22 of Frontier, the Australian science fiction media magazine
Back in 1999, box office expectations were modest for the remake of "The Mummy". Helmed by writer/director Stephen Sommers, whose previous film ("Deep Rising") had tanked, and starring Brendan Fraser ("Bedazzled"), who wasn't exactly an A-list star, the execs at Universal Pictures would have been happy just to break even on their $74 million investment. However, as the summer progressed, despite the domination of "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace", "The Mummy" went on to gross over $400 million worldwide, and naturally, there were calls for a sequel. Now, almost two years to the day that "The Mummy" first opened, the cast and crew reprise their roles in "The Mummy Returns". With a heftier budget of $100 million and boasting bigger and louder action set pieces, "The Mummy Returns" is an epic-sized popcorn flick that should offer all the thrills of your typical summer blockbuster, despite a disappointing script.
When we last saw Rick O'Connell (Fraser), Evie Carnahan (Rachel Weisz, seen recently in "Enemy at the Gates"), and Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah of "The Hurricane"), they had just thwarted the world domination plans of Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo of "Hard Target"), sending the resurrected high priest and his love Anck-Su-Namun (former model Patricia Velasquez) back to the underworld. Fast forward to 1933, and we find that Rick and Evie are not only married, but they have an eight-year old son named Alex (newcomer Freddie Boath). In the nine years that have passed, the dashing adventurer in Rick has become somewhat domesticated, preferring to relax in their opulent London home, while the former shrinking-violet librarian Evie has developed an insatiable thirst for adventure, preferring to explore ancient tombs rather than cataloging books.
On their most recent excursion, they unearth a gold bracelet, which becomes fused to Alex's arm. It seems that the bracelet once belonged to the Scorpion King (Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson of WWF fame), and it is the key to resurrecting this ancient warrior and his fearsome army of Anubis. According to myth, whoever is able to defeat the Scorpion King will gain control of the army of Anubis, and bring about the 'next Apocalypse'. As a result, Alex and the bracelet are shanghaied by the followers of Imhotep, who has been unearthed once again and plans to use the bracelet and the army it controls for his own nefarious purposes.
With no time to lose, O'Connell and company head back to Egypt to rescue Alex and stop Imhotep once again, aided by Magi warrior Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr, reprising his role) and a spineless dirigible pilot named Izzy (Shaun Parkes of "Human Traffic"). Unfortunately, they face fierce opposition from Imhotep's followers, who include chief henchman Lock-Nah (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje of HBO's "Oz") and a mysterious woman named Meela, who appears to be the reincarnation of Anck-Su-Namun.
The charm of "The Mummy" was how it combined the action-adventure derring-do of the "Indiana Jones" movies with the irreverent comic sensibility of Sam Raimi's "Army of Darkness". In the case of "The Mummy Returns", Sommers more or less does the same, only with a bigger budget and crisper computer animation, making this film feel 'bigger' than its predecessor. White knuckle thrills are also in no short supply here, such as the film's prologue featuring clashing armies in ancient Egypt, a wild chase through the streets of London where our heroes commandeer a double-decker bus to escape their undead pursuers, and the film's climactic showdown between the forces of good and evil. Humor is also in good supply, especially in Alex's dealings with his captors, who end up as glorified babysitters, as well as Rick's usually witty remarks in the face of danger.
Unfortunately, where "The Mummy Returns" falls down is in the script, which was hastily thrown together by Sommers when the order came down to fashion a sequel. While it is admirable how Sommers has managed to incorporate scenes from the first film, albeit from a new perspective, much of what happens in "The Mummy Returns" feels contrived, as the relationships between Imhotep, Anck-Su-Namun, Evie, and Rick are revealed to be part of some 'master plan' foretold by ancient prophecy, and the story essentially follows the same pattern as before. This lazy sort of storytelling is further hindered by the film running aground every few minutes from laggard pacing, especially when compared to the crackerjack and relatively economical execution of "The Mummy". And though the action sequences are stunning, they also end up inadvertently triggering a game of 'spot the movie reference'-- I half-expected Rick to run into Indiana Jones during his travels. In addition to the obvious "Raiders of the Lost Ark" influences, you will experience plenty of cinematic déja vu as various set pieces call to mind "Braveheart", "Gladiator", "Jurassic Park: The Lost World", "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon", "Zulu", "The Matrix", and even the "Final Fantasy" series of videogames (which will be getting the feature film treatment itself this summer).
Despite such thin material, the chemistry between Fraser and Weisz in the first film is still as strong, and Weisz handles the added physicality of her 'buffed up' Evie with much aplomb. Hannah once again supplies comic relief as Evie's dim-witted brother, while newcomer Boath possesses the requisite spunk and enthusiasm as young Alex. Vosloo is adequate as Imhotep, though his menace ends up being diluted by the presence of the other villainous characters. With a meatier role this time around, the cracks in Velasquez's thesping abilities are obvious in her often-stilted line delivery. Finally, even though the marquee-billed The Rock is given very little do (other than in the prologue and providing his likeness to a computer-generated monstrosity in the film's climax), the studio heads were so pleased with his performance that they have already greenlit "The Scorpion King", a prequel that will be hitting theaters later this year.
In the final analysis, "The Mummy Returns" achieves some mixed results. While it certainly boasts plenty of eye candy that is best experienced on the big screen, this rollercoaster ride ends up being tempered by some laggard pacing and a weaker script. It may not be as fresh as "The Mummy" was two years ago, but "The Mummy Returns" should serve as a decent appetizer for the upcoming summer moviegoing season.