The Mummy (1999) Retro Review

The Mummy shouldn’t work. Flaws like wantonly tossed banana skins lie scattered at its feet and it seems to slide and slip on every single one on its way to the credits. Inconsistent makeup effects, primitive CGI, wild and wacky choreography, caricatures and plot holes garish enough to spackle with a sandstorm all stand in its way. And yet…like the best slapstick tricksters, 1999’s The Mummy turns its slippery stumbles into a charming little dance. Quite frankly, this movie is so much fun it’s almost impolite to call it a remake.

It certainly is; the filmmakers were enthusiastic about that. The producers and director wanted to remix the horror of the 1932 original with the swashbuckling adventure of Jason and the Argonauts. One constantly wonders if they were going for campy as well but that again is what is so surprising about The Mummy; is it really as self-aware as it seems or is it just having such a blatantly good time that irony is an ancillary delight? I have returned to this film time and again and I have absolutely no idea.

Our main story takes place in Egypt in the early 1900s, a time of unabashed imperialism and rugged American idealism and still scented with enough of the last century to carry its lingering superstitions. Hamunaptra is the El Dorado of the Middle East, where the Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt buried their vast wealth. It is a death trap for all who seek it and guarded by an ancient order of warriors. When Evie Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and her no-account brother Jonathan (John Hannah) happen upon a map to the ancient city, Evie smells a chance to get some real field experience. Evie, you see, is an Egyptian scholar and very, very plucky. They free the man Jonathan stole the map from, a roguish treasure hunter named Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and set off for the city. Along the way they encounter Rick’s old friend/enemy Beni (Kevin J. O’Connor) leading a group of Americans to the same destination. Once they find Hamunaptra however, they awaken an ancient evil, the mummy Imhotep, foretold to bring back the ten plagues of Egypt and cast a shadow over the Earth.

Though it looks nothing like the Golden Age of Hollywood, The Mummy’s tone is about as close to those classic pictures as you can get. It is frank and jovial and genuinely surprising with its choices in narrative, but it would fall apart completely without its leads.

Like most top-billed actors Brendan Fraser had a handful of years starring in a bevy of major motion pictures before seeming to disappear completely and this movie has him, in my personal opinion, at his very best. I’m not certain that Mr. Fraser ever satisfactorily figured out what his schtick was in Hollywood (the latter end of his career seemed to place it as opposite cartoon characters) but this was early on and he plays Rick O’Connell with a tough and silly sincerity. Comparisons to Indiana Jones abound but Indiana Jones and Rick O’Connell share the same pulp roots. And unlike Indiana, Rick is a treasure hunter plain and simple, without any of that “belongs in a museum” hokum.

And one of those delightful surprises in narrative I mentioned is embodied by none other than his sidekick/adversary Beni. So seldom do we get a weasel torn by a genuine conflict of interest. Beni has no scruples against betraying those closest to him; he is, at his basest, a survivor; but O’Connor plays him with such weird humanity that, even though he is the butt of so many of the movie’s jokes and sends so many characters to sordid ends, there is something sympathetic about him. He is always the lowest weasel on the totem pole and it’s easy to see that he and Rick share some essential ingredient. Deep down.

But if there is an uncontested heart of the film it is in Evelyn Carnahan, played by Rachel Weisz. Weisz is simply magical. Never has innocence and sweetness so befit an actress and never has it been sold so endearingly. She manages the impossible balancing act of being stuffy, funny, educated and tough. Her creed, that she, “[M]ay not be an explorer or a gunfighter,” etc. but “a librarian” is one of the film’s best lines, delivered amongst a score of laugh out loud moments. She and Brendan Fraser make a classic onscreen couple.

But let’s face it, there is a whole classic ensemble of characters to choose from.

In my reviews I talk a lot about the relation between trailers and the films proper because they are the most blatant impetus to get your butt in the movie seat (aside from needing somewhere to take your paramour after dinner) and are the most blatant indications of what the studio thinks of you. Trailers are marketing tools. When I was a kid, The Mummy’s trailer was full of action and scary stuff – mostly scary stuff – and led me, my peers and my family to believe that this was a special effects laden scare machine. There are plenty of special effects and plenty of action but this is no horror movie. The Mummy fits most comfortably into the genre of action-comedy and I was completely surprised when the jokes started coming. Even when the action is at its height the moments of levity are timed and terrific. Who knows if The Mummy would have found such box office success if it were marketed as what it truly was, but who can say what that truly is?

No, Arnold Vosloo is not Egyptian. No, his Imhotep does not have the gravitas of a Boris Karloff. He gives a good sinister grin but his role is not as important as our protagonists. (He gets much more to work with in the sequel.) What he is is the malevolent force they’re opposing. And what he is is a good illustration of how The Mummy handled its remake. The scariness of the original was meant to come from the shambling evil of Mr. Karloff; fair enough. That’s not the game here. Here we’ve got a mummy that can conjure giant sand monsters and zombie soldiers and flesh eating scarabs (I know scarabs eat elephant poop but they didn’t know that in 1926). And why this CG craziness works is because when Rick and Evie and Jonathan encounter the craziness they give craziness right back. When Brendan Fraser runs into the mummy the first time the mummy screams at him, and Brendan Fraser screams right back and blasts him with the shotgun. That’s a cinematic jackpot.

The Mummy is a 1930s film with 1999’s sensibility and if you’d tried to sell me on that premise I would never have believed it could work. But it does, so grab some popcorn and enjoy it.

Based on The Mummy (1932)

The Mummy (1999)
PG-13
Directed by Stephen Sommers
Universal Pictures
125 Minutes

For more film reviews, check out Pierce Nahigyan’s Article Archive

4 Comments on The Mummy (1999) Retro Review

  1. I’ve been saying that to myself for years! Brendan Fraser never found his niche. Although he did have that short-lived resurgence with Journey to the Center of the Earth and The Mummy 3.
    It’s a shame, he has a very likable stage presence.

  2. I agree but I’ve always been reluctant to praise him overtly. I remember he hosted SNL many, many years ago and his complete lack of personality was actually a little frightening. I’m not really sure Brendan Fraser exists…

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