Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Mummy (1999)

A movie like The Mummy (1999), a remake of the original starring Boris Karloff, reminds me of an edict I try to remember but sometimes forget: review the movie that was made, not the movie I wanted made. This version of The Mummy had a long production history, nearly ten years in the making and originating as a more modestly budgeted horror movie. Some of my favorite filmmakers - Clive Barker, George Romero, Joe Dante, John Sayles - were attached at different points to write and/or direct the film, and after reading up what their different takes would have been, I wish one of them had gotten to realize their vision.

But, none of those treatments were filmed (although a few different idea from those unused scripts, from my understanding, were incorporated in the final version), and as much I would have preferred to see a different take, it's not productive to lament over what could have been, especially in the world of cinema where unrealized projects are a dime a dozen. Instead, I will try my best to appreciate what was made.

Instead of a horror movie, this version of the bandaged one is a blockbuster, action-adventure thrill ride, more like a spin on the roller coaster than a trip to the haunted house. Written and directed by Stephen Sommers, it's more in line with Indiana Jones than anything directed by James Whale or Todd Browning. It's action-packed with a strong emphasis on humor, filled with shootouts, chases, sword fights, and quips. Hardly anything that appears in it is original, the plot is filled with plenty of holes, and the characters are stereotypes, but I can't deny I had fun while watching it and came away from it smiling. It aspires to be popcorn entertainment and mostly succeeds.

The basic setup is similar to the original. Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), an Egyptian high priest buried alive for murdering the pharaoh and trying to resurrect his lost love in defiance of the gods, is accidentally resurrected in 1926 by an archaeological expedition to Hamunaptra, ancient city of the dead. Alive once more, he restores his decaying body by draining the lifeforce out a group of explorers who opened a chest of treasure and sets about bringing his love back to life. To accomplish the latter, he intends to sacrifice British librarian and Egyptologist Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz), the woman who unknowingly brought him back to life by reading from the Book of the Dead (no, not the Necronomican). Opposing Imhotep is Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr), leader of a secret society descended from Pharaoh's loyal guards, and Rick O'Connell (Brendan Frasier), an American adventurer.

The best way I can think of describing The Mummy is live-action cartoon. Instead of being broody and dark where things go bump in the night, it's often out in the open, bright, and the sets, whether in Cairo or the ancient ruins, are extravagant and at times stunning. There's a room of treasure, an ornate bed chamber, museum, and a gorgeous shot of Hamunaptra emerging in front of the rising sun. The special effects - hordes of scarab beetles, Imhotep's body gradually regenerating, a sandstorm with his face imprinted on it - are well done but for the most part glaringly obvious CGI. A few moments of potential creepiness, like when victims are eaten alive by the beetles or Imhotep summons a pack of shambling, squealing mummified cohorts, are undone because the creatures were clearly animated in after the fact, though I was impressed by the design.

The tone is quite silly at times. A number of characters including Evelyn's brother Jonathan (John Hannah), the cowardly Beni (Kevin J. O'Connor), a fat pilot named Winston, and the warden Evelyn bribes to get Rick out of jail are around for comic relief. Evelyn herself is introduced in a scene in which she knocks over an entire roomful of bookshelves, and there are elements of Sam Raimi's gonzo style present when Rick sword fights mummified guards, and their decapitated heads and dismembered limbs bounce around like plates in a Three Stooges skit. Violence is prevalent, but it's sanitized and bloodless, played for laughs and excitement rather than shocks and gore; the worst of it (people being mummified alive) is implied and not shown graphically.

 No performance is Oscar caliber, but they suit the genre. Frasier is fine in the adventurer role though he's still channeling something of his typical, lovable buffoon persona. Vosloo doesn't have do much more than be menacing and look intense, but he pulls that off while Fehr is appropriately mysterious and intense as the guardian of the curse. Weisz gets stuck with the damsel-in-distress part, but she and Frasier work well together and have some good banter. The more overtly comical roles strain at times, sometimes distracting for the action and story.

It's not the Mummy movie I would have wanted to see be made, but whatever its flaws, this is one remake that is entertaining. It's got laughs, adventure, and exciting action. Still, I hold out hope for a return to the title character's horror roots.

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