When I saw The Mummy I thought it was the second coming of Indiana Jones. It was a pre-30s serial style adventure with sense of humor. The series didn’t end up going that way, leaning heavily into the visual effects in the sequel and going completely off the rails without the original filmmaker or costar and ultimately getting rebooted as an aborted shared universe starter. 20 years later revisiting The Mummy is more of a stand-alone but reminds me what could have been.
Turning a Universal monster into an action movie was a great idea. It’s right there in the premise, with exploring ancient Egyptian tombs. It’s just ‘90s Universal had the resources to emphasize set pieces, and use the latest CGI to reinvent it’s monster. So much of this one is still practical, from battles with hundreds of extras riding horses and library book stacks tumbling like dominoes and hundreds more extras as Imhotep’s zombified followers.
When Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) double fisted his pistols I thought it was Indiana Jones meets John Woo. Two years later I interviewed writer/director Stephen Sommers and learned he’d never seen a John Woo movie before The Mummy, so it was a coincidence. It still brought an energy to the old timey pulp hero.
Evie (Rachel Weisz) and Jonathan (John Hannah) free Rick from hanging to take them to Hamunaptra looking for treasure. They traverse the desert, exploring tombs and caves by torch light. Of course one of those treasures is the Book of the Dead, and Evie knows ancient Egyptian, so awakens Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) himself.
Fraser has a wonderful quality for these blockbusters. He fully believes in the magic of the world and commits to it, while he can also be the man of action the role requires. I don’t think there’s ever been an actor who interacts with CGI as well as Fraser. He has the leading man looks but never took himself too seriously, hence he was equally committed to George of the Jungle and Looney Tunes: Back in Action.
Rick has plenty of his own “no ticket” moments. I love when the mummy screams at him and he screams back, and when he gleefully brings a cat to the mummy saying, “Look what I got.” (Cats are mummies’ weakness.) Rick is irreverent with humans too. When the boat is burning and he tells his warden (Omid Djalili), “Stay here, I’ll go get help.” It takes the guy a beat to realize he’s kidding.
Exposition is often handled with lively scenes, like when Rick wants to leave and Evie keeps unpacking everything he puts in the suitcase. Rivals underestimate Evie because she’s a woman and Evie explains most of the mythology like Professor Jones did.
I think facing a CGI monster is sort of an extension of the melting Nazis and choosing the wrong Grail. Imhotep could be in more of the movie in 1999 and a lot more by 2001’s sequel. The FX are a little more cartoony than they would be now but they interact more. The bug crawling into Imhotep’s cheek and he eats it is fun, and it’s just Vosloo pretending to chew. The scarab bugs are still the creepiest.
So right after Franchise Fred graduated film school and became a professional journalist, he couldn’t wait for The Mummy Returns . The Mummy Returns is still fun but it’s so much more CGI intensive, it’s pretty far from Indiana Jones at that point.
Already The Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson)’s army seems to be a lot of CGI crowds. The VFX seem even more cartoony. Maybe they were more rushed but I think it’s just because they relied on them more. The Mummy could get away with it because they were accenting practical scenes. <em.Returns was a full frontal CGI show.
I expected Rick to have to team up with Imhotep to defeat the Scorpion King and that would be a cool twist in the end, but no. I was thinking too deeply. There’s just two bad guys this time. It’s cool they gave Patricia Velasquez a bigger role though.
Fraser suffered some major injuries on Returns, though he recovered enough to continue making physically demanding movies through Journey to the Center of the Earth. Actually Furry Vengeance was still a very physical movie. He was great in these. I’m sorry it did so much damage to him physically.
Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is just a mess. Choosing a different mummy and exploring Asian culture may have meant well but it doesn’t feel like The Mummy at all. Rob Cohen is usually good with this kind of big FX spectacle but there were a lot of miscalculations here.
Then there’s the Scorpion King spinoffs. The Rock’s star vehicle didn’t exactly bring back the sword and sandal genre. Even if the Rock didn’t want to do more they could’ve been a solid straight to video franchise. They’re lucrative but nothing’s compelled me to watch past Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior. To my knowledge they still haven’t gotten to Mathayus’s evil turn.
So The Mummy was that time we almost got a new epic adventure quest franchise. We got one somewhat fun sequel and a spinoff that did the job of launching The Rock’s movie career, but really what we have is one great throwback to the pulpy serial adventures that came out 20 years ago today