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On May 7, 1999, Universal resurrected the Mummy franchise in theaters as an actioner starring Brendan Fraser. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below.
Far more ambitious than its predecessors but a notch or two below the unique event-movie experience it might have been, Universal’s The Mummy is undermined by weak writing. Overall, though, it should erect pyramids of moola and not sink into the quicksand when Star Wars: Episode 1 — The Phantom Menace opens 12 days into its run.
The mummy was a rotting Egyptian priest cursed for 3,000 years-plus, sprung from his sarcophagus to destroy the defilers of his beloved princess’ sacred tomb. Universal, creators of the magical, unusual 1932 Boris Karloff version, as well as a 1940 remake and several sequels, last revived the aged one for 1955’s Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy. After 1971’s Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb, the last of Britain’s Hammer Films-produced series that began in 1959, the periodically resurrected movie monster dropped out of sight.
Writer-director Stephen Sommers’ approach to a project long in the works at the studio is an homage to widescreen epics of the 1950s and ’60s rather than to the earlier black-and-white chillers. The lead has undergone a thorough upgrade, including world-threatening evil powers. In past incarnations the character, called Kharis or Imhotep, was a hobbling, untalkative menace with a killer left-handed grip.
This Mummy lunges at the viewer and applies the choker from the wondrous opening shots of Thebes in 1290 B.C. and the revealing costume of Anck Su Namun (Patricia Velasquez), favorite slave to the Pharaoh Seti (Aharon Ipale) but secret lover of high priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo). In a 7-minute opening sequence we see Anck Su Namun kill herself and Imhotep try to bring her soul back from the dead. But before he succeeds, he’s sentenced to a horrible fate by the Pharaoh’s fierce guards.
The movie shifts generic gears frequently and not always successfully. The story takes up again in 1923 with a major battle raging at the ruins of Hamunaptra, the legendary City of the Dead, where Imhotep was stowed by the fearful ancients, descendants of whom watch the site and discourage adventurers such as fearless American legionnaire Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and ratty, Russian-accented Beni (Kevin J. O’Connor).
O’Connell barely escapes with his life thanks to bad vibes from the locals and flees into the desert. The story then moves to Cairo three years later, where the light comedy team of museum librarian Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and her hapless brother Jonathan (John Hannah) enter the scenario. Discouraged but not derailed by her curator boss (Erick Avari), they set out to find Hamunaptra and plunder its treasures — she for scientific reasons, her brother for the usual greedy ones.
Evelyn and Jonathan rescue O’Connell from a sticky situation and agree to share the booty from their expedition with Warden (Omid Djalili), who completes the foursome that sets out on a riverboat. Attracted to dowdy Evelyn, O’Connell agrees to take them to the ruins, but on the boat is a competing group of fortune-seeking, gun-slinging American cowboys led by Henderson (Stephen Dunham) and who have hired Beni as a guide.
The boat comes under attack from shadowy warriors commanded by Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr), dedicated to keeping Imhotep safely buried, but the adventurers escape the burning vessel. After a Lawrence of Arabia-like trek through the desert, the race to the ruins is a draw and both groups start digging.
What they unleash is a “mushy,” skeletal Imhotep who must kill all who open the cursed box. He regenerates a little with each victim, falls for half-Egyptian Evelyn, unleashes sundry biblical plagues and so on.
Mummy is often rewardingly imaginative — such as the reflecting-mirror method of lighting tomb interiors — but overblown when it comes to conventional gunplay and reliance on irreverent comedy. It does succeed in giving one the heebie-jeebies with rivers of man-eating scarabs, huge waves of sand that morph into the Mummy’s foul, gaping maw and many close encounters in dimly lit catacombs.
Fraser is fine as the rugged hero and Weisz keeps pace. But there’s one miscalculation with Sommers’ screenplay — which is based on his original story co-written with Lloyd Fonvielle and executive producer Kevin Jarre — involving the Mummy at the conclusion. The restored Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) has little to do but kidnap the damsel and put her under the sacred knife.
Still, there’s rarely a dull moment in Mummy, and Hannah, Fehr, Djalili, O’Connor and Bernard Fox (as a rummy Brit eccentric) hold their own with the special effects.
Cheers to cinematographer Adrian Biddle, production designer Allan Cameron, costume designer John Bloomfield, composer Jerry Goldsmith and visual effects supervisor John Berton for evoking so many classics — from The Man Who Would Be King to Jason and the Argonauts — without defiling too much of the past cinematic treasures. — David Hunter, originally published on May 3, 1999
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