Friday, June 9, 2017

Worth Mentioning - All We Found Was Sand and Blood

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

The Mummy gets rebooted as an adventure franchise.

THE MUMMY (1999)

Universal spent most of the decade of the 1990s developing a remake of The Mummy. At first, their intention was to make a straightforward horror movie with a budget in the range of 10 to 15 million dollars, and this project passed through the hands of several masters of the horror genre. At one point, Hellraiser creator Clive Barker and Critters 2 director/frequent Stephen King collaborator Mick Garris were working together on a highly sexual take on the concept that was eventually rejected by Universal for being "perverted". Another another point, Joe Dante was attached to direct from a screenplay by his Piranha screenwriter John Sayles and Deranged's Alan Ormsby. The project was offered to Wes Craven, he turned it down. George A. Romero was going to bring the mummy into modern day, but ran into contractual issues.

Clive Barker, Mick Garris, Joe Dante, Wes Craven, George A. Romero, it would have been amazing to get a mummy film directed by any one of them. Instead, it was writer/director Stephen Sommers - then fresh off of Deep Rising - who brought Universal a pitch that not only convinced them to greenlight the production of a new Mummy film, but to raise the budget to $80 million. Sommers needed the bigger budget because his vision for The Mummy wasn't a down-and-dirty, serious horror movie. His approach was to blend the core ideas of The Mummy with Indiana Jones-style family friendly adventure.

Although a period piece, The Mummy 1999 is unmistakably a film of its time, the huge amount of CGI on display in its opening minutes quickly making it clear that it's proudly embracing the modern blockbuster sensibility.

The story begins in Egypt in 1290 B.C., when High Priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) was having an affair with Pharaoh Seti I's mistress Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velásquez). When the Pharaoh found them out, Imhotep and Anck-Su-Namun murdered him. They were then immediately swarmed by the Pharaoh's bodyguards the Medjai, so Anck-Su-Namun took her own life. Imhotep attempted to resurrect his lost love with the Book of the Dead, but again he was thwarted by the Medjai. For his transgressions he was sentenced to be buried alive. His tongue was cut out, he was wrapped tightly in bandages and placed inside a sarcophagus, and then before the sarcophagus was closed flesh-eating scarabs were poured on top of him.

The cursed Imhotep was buried in Hamunaptra, the city of the dead, a necropolis that also happened to be the place where the Pharaohs would hide away the wealth of Egypt. Hamunaptra was swallowed by the desert, and the treasure buried there has made it a place of interest to fortune hunters for centuries. Members of the Medjai are still watching over the place when the story jumps ahead to 1923, at which time a garrison of the French Foreign Legion that has come seeking the treasure is fighting a battle on the sands that cover Hamunaptra. American Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) and the cowardly Beni Gabor (Kevin J. O'Connor) are the only soldiers to survive the fight - and in the midst of it, Rick witnesses a demonstration of the sand-manipulating power of the still-buried Imhotep.

Three years later, Rick is asked to lead comedically klutzy Egyptologist Evie Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and her thieving brother Jonathan (John Hannah) to Hamunaptra. Since his only other option is dying in a Cairo prison, he agrees to take the job. And so a desert-spanning adventure begins, with the expedition led by Rick racing other fortune hunters (the other group being led by Beni) to Hamunaptra while the Medjai try to thwart their progress. Along the way, of course, Rick and Evie also start to fall in love.

Sommers added his own tweaks to the story and characters, but none of this is out of place for a Mummy movie; in fact, the way The Mummy '99 plays out is quite reminiscent of Universal's second Mummy movie, The Mummy's Hand, which spent the majority of its running time focusing on an expedition searching Egypt for a coveted tomb. The Mummy's Hand had the romantic angle, too, and also had a comedic element. There's a lot of attempts at comedy mixed into The Mummy '99, although it's comedy that I find sort of grating, since (as I said when I wrote about Deep Rising) what Sommers finds humorous isn't that amusing to me.

It took The Mummy's Hand more than 40 minutes to get to the mummy action, and this Mummy keeps you waiting as well. There's plenty of stuff going on during the build-up to hold your attention, and horrific things like flesh-hungry scarabs and deadly booby traps are encountered once the characters start exploring subterranean Hamunaptra, but Imhotep isn't resurrected until just under an hour into the film. The classic Mummy movies would only have a few minutes left to go at that point in their running time, but at two hours long this Mummy is twice the length of most of its predecessors.

The moment in which Imhotep is resurrected is quite good, although I have to admit that the main reason I enjoy it is because it has elements that remind me of The Evil Dead. Namely, the fact that all the trouble that is to come is caused by someone reading aloud from the Book of the Dead. That someone is Evie. A fellow Egyptologist tries to stop her from speaking the lines written in the book they have acquired, yelling "You must not read from the book!" But it's too late. The forces of evil have already been awoken, and Imhotep's rotting corpse springs back to life.

Imhotep is not (unfortunately, as far as I'm concerned) the shambling, strangling, bandage-wrapped mummy that Kharis was in most of the original Mummy sequels, he is more along the lines of the Imhotep that was played by Boris Karloff in the original Mummy - but much more powerful than any mummy we've seen before. Due to the curse that was put upon him, the ten plagues of Egypt are unleashed when Imhotep rises from the grave. Water turns to blood, deadly insects swarm Imhotep's victims, fiery hail rains down on Cairo, etc. Those infected with the plague of boils and sores also become mindless zombie slaves in his service. If all that weren't enough, this guy can also get around by turning himself into a whirlwind of sand.

Late in the film, we do get some bandage-wrapped baddies when Imhotep summons the reanimated corpses of his priest followers. They're easily dispatched, though. They're basically just in the movie to give the heroes something to shoot at.

Imhotep pursues the people who unearthed his tomb with a couple goals in mind: he sucks the life force out of the people who entered his tomb, regenerating a little with each kill, and he has chosen Evie to be the human sacrifice required to resurrect his beloved Anck-Su-Namun. As you'd expect, the death of Evie is not something Rick and Jonathan are interested in allowing to happen, so large scale, comedy-tinged horror action ensues as the pair - with the help of some friends, like Oded Fehr as a Medjai named Ardeth Bay - set out to "rescue the damsel in distress, kill the bad guy, and save the world".

The Mummy '99 is not my ideal take on the concept of mummies, some of the humor makes me groan, and Sommers relied on CGI way too much, but overall I find it to be a decently entertaining film. The low budget, straightforward horror film that Universal was aiming for at first is the sort of movie that would come to my mind if I were tasked with developing a new version of The Mummy, but Sommers' approach was actually kind of clever. The element of archaeologists on expedition was already an established part of the franchise, so why not kick things up into Indiana Jones level of adventure?

Of course, Rick O'Connell is no Indiana Jones; Brendan Fraser has too much goofball in his screen presence to be much of a badass. I've never been very impressed by Imhotep in this movie, either. Vosloo, who previously took over the Darkman series for Universal, wasn't given much to do beyond be bald and cast spells. Imhotep is immensely powerful, maybe too powerful (I wouldn't mind if Sommers had pulled way back on his abilities, but then I like my mummies to strangle their victims), but he's not very interesting. My least favorite aspect of Deep Rising, the comic relief character played by Kevin J. O'Connor, was carried over into this movie. Thankfully Beni isn't quite as annoying as O'Connor's Deep Rising character was. Of all the characters, Evie is probably my favorite - Weisz makes a good heroine.

This isn't a movie I feel compelled to watch very often, but when I do I have some fun with it. If only Universal had let one of those horror directors make a darker, cheaper Mummy movie in the '90s in addition to this one... I can't shake "what if?" thoughts about that lost opportunity.


I hadn't been completely thrilled with 1999's The Mummy, but I was still interested enough to check out the sequel when it hit in 2001. My friend Noah and I were hanging out, had a couple hours to kill, we were near the theatre, so we went to see The Mummy Returns. A little over two hours later, I left theatre feeling exhausted, my senses having been battered by the onslaught of this bloated, insane, CGI nightmare.

Stephen Sommers returned to write and direct the sequel to his '99 film, and he fell into the sequel trap of going bigger in a major way. He went too far with this one, packed too much into a movie that is too long, and got too silly with it.

The story begins in Egypt, 3067 B.C. A warrior known as the Scorpion King and played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson in his blockbuster debut led an army on a campaign to conquer the known world. Seven years into this campaign, the Scorpion King was defeated, his army exiled into the desert. The King himself was the final survivor of their death trek through the desert, and in a pact to save his life he sold his soul to the god Anubis. Anubis allowed the Scorpion King to get his revenge by leading an army of monstrous jackal creatures on one last assault - and then the Scorpion King was cursed to be a servant of Anubis for all time.

The Scorpion King lies dormant in the desert, waiting to be awoken. So it's not the best idea that The Mummy hero Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Evie (Rachel Weisz) are continuing to go on expeditions and raid tombs seven years after the events of the previous film, now accompanied by their young son Alex (Freddie Boath). As if The Mummy '99 weren't already kid-friendly enough, now the sequel has a little kid running around in it. At least he's precocious, but he still grates on my nerves.

Driven by flashbacks from a past life lived in ancient Egypt, Evie is seeking out the resting place of the Scorpion King and the army of Anubis. She's not the only one who has taken an interest in this legend, either. A cult formed around the evil Imhotep, the villain of the previous film, intends to resurrect the Scorpion King. If that happens, the Scorpion King and the army of Anubis will destroy the world. That is, they will do that unless Imhotep is resurrected and can defeat the Scorpion King in battle - in that case, Imhotep will take over the army of Anubis and rule the world. That's what the cultists want to do, so they dig up Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo reprising the role) and bring him back to life.

Meanwhile, little Alex has managed to get an artifact called the Bracelet of Anubis stuck on his wrist, and this means that he is actually one who has accidentally started the seven day countdown to the Scorpion King's return. The cultists, whose members include Patricia Velásquez as a woman named Meela Nais, who is the reincarnation of Imhotep's lost love Anck-Su-Namun (who Velásquez played in the back story flashbacks in The Mummy), and Imhotep kidnap Alex to take him to the Scorpion King's resting place. Rick, Evie, Evie's brother Jonathan (John Hannah), and Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr), a member of the Medjai group that stands in opposition to Imhotep, give chase. While the villains travel across the Egyptian desert in a train, the heroes follow in a makeshift dirigible - actually an old boat hanging under a large balloon. A high speed chase this is not, and the moment when the characters boarded this dirigible is pretty much the moment I completely checked out of the movie.

It gets worse when Imhotep takes control of water instead of his usual sand trick and causes the rocket-boosted dirigible to crash into an area that just happens to be inhabited by a tribe of re-animated, mummified pygmies. Where did these ridiculous things come from? Did Sommers put this together stream of consciousness?

I was embarrassed to be sitting through this film in the theatre, embarrassed that I had chosen to inflict it on my friend. The second hour couldn't go fast enough as it built up to a large scale battle between the Medjai and Anubis's jackal army that plays out at the same time as a three-way brawl between Rick, Imhotep, and the Scorpion King, who returns to our world as a scorpion monster with a terrible CGI Dwayne Johnson head. Somehow Rick and Imhotep are able to contain their laughter when they see this. I guess it's scarier in person.

Amid the silliness and CGI overload, the most satisfying thing about the climax is the fight between Evie and Meela / Anck-Su-Namun, a fight that has been in the works for thousands of years. This pair has faced off before, when Evie was Princess Nefertiri, daughter of Pharaoh Seti I - the man Imhotep and Anck-Su-Namun betrayed and killed. That's a rivalry that's actually somewhat interesting.

As I stumbled out of the theatre that day in 2001, the only reaction that came to mind was "Bloody hell." I didn't like The Mummy's Return at all back then, and I'm not so fond of it today. It's no surprise that Sommers didn't make any more Mummy movies after this one, because what could he have possibly done with the concept? He threw everything into this one, over-stuffing it to the point of absurdity. It's a live action cartoon... so it's fitting that it was followed by an actual cartoon.


Given the tone of Stephen Sommers' Mummy movies, it's no surprise that they received an animated series spin-off, but I was surprised that the cartoon doesn't actually serve as a sequel to The Mummy '99 and The Mummy Returns. I had assumed that would be the case, since the show is about Rick and Evie O'Connell, their young son Alex, and Evie's troublesome brother Jonathan going on adventures around the world while trying to thwart the global domination schemes of evil mummy Imhotep. Instead, the cartoon takes all of those established elements but erases the history the O'Connells have with Imhotep - when he is resurrected in the first episode, it seems to be the first time the family has ever crossed paths with this undead fellow.

Imhotep is resurrected by a man named Colin Weasler, who works with archaeologist Evie in a museuem. Why does Weasler do this? Because, as his last name not-so-subtly implies, he's a weaselly jerk who's seeking fame and validation. Instead, he ends up being Imhotep's lackey. Imhotep's ambition to take over the world goes all the way back to ancient Egypt, when he was condemned to death for attempting to acquire the Manacle of Osiris, the device that will allow him to take over the planet.

The mummy still wants the Manacle of Osiris when he's brought back to life, and unfortunately Alex has gotten the manacle stuck on his wrist, just like the Bracelet of Anubis in The Mummy Returns. Imhotep wants the manacle, so he pursues the kid. To make the manacle work, Imhotep will also need the Scrolls of Thebes, which have been scattered around the world and basically serve as the instruction manual for the manacle.

The quest for the lost scrolls is the plot device that keeps the animated series going for 26 episodes. Imhotep travels around the world trying to gather the scrolls, but the O'Connells are always there to keep the scrolls out of his hands. Of course, to keep things interesting there are all sorts of other villains and monsters encountered along the way - more mummies, shadow demons, sea creatures, volcano monsters, re-animated dinosaur fossils, a fire-breathing dragon, werewolves, sand worms, traitors, scarab and bird creatures, a tiger man, etc. Our heroes also befriend a helpful minotaur, and the non-monstrous Albert Einstein makes a surprise guest appearance along the way. Alex isn't just a scared kid on the run, either. As the show goes on, the O'Connells' pal Ardeth Bay starts training Alex to become one of the Medjai, guardians of the tombs.

I don't think the Mummy animated series is something that would gain many adult fans, but I always like it when cartoons are based on monsters and horror properties. It provides a nice gateway for children to start getting into the horror genre, which is something I always support. Shows like The Mummy help create new generations of monster kids.


I wasn't blown away by The Mummy 1999 and had been burned by The Mummy Returns, so I skipped seeing the third film in the series at the theatre. I paid so little attention to it that I have sometimes forgotten there even was a third film in the series. But the O'Connell family adventures did continue seven years after the release of Returns, with some shake-ups both behind the camera and in front of it. Major players were replaced, starting with Mummy '99 / Returns writer/director Stephen Sommers. Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, xXx) took the helm this time around, working from a script by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar.

Another notable replacement: this movie does not feature Imhotep, the mummy himself. The mummy of the title is an entirely different character, and this is a change I fully support. Imhotep was never very intimidating to begin with, and Returns made it clear that the character was played out. Pitting the heroes against different mummies from different lands was a great idea to keep the franchise going beyond Imhotep, and an intriguing setting was chosen for this one. Egypt is left behind in the previous films and Tomb of the Dragon Emperor moves the action to China.

Gough and Millar's story is directly inspired by a real historical figure, China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, who is portrayed by Jet Li. A lengthy opening sequence gives the back story on this guy: a power-hungry king, he conquered the entirety of China and became the Dragon Emperor. His enemies were sentenced to hard labor building the Great Wall, and anyone who fell during its construction was buried beneath it. His mystics taught him how to control the elements of fire, water, earth, wood, and metal, but like the rest of us he couldn't control his own aging and he knew he wouldn't be able to conquer death. He sought immortality, and hoped a witch named Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh) could grant it to him. Instead, the witch turns against him, casting a spell that turns him and his army into the Terracotta Army. It may seem to us that the Terracotta Army are sculptures that were buried near Qin Shi Huang's mausoleum, but according this film they're actually petrified human beings.

It should be noted that not all of this is historically accurate. As far as we know.

Jump ahead to 1946, when we catch up with the O'Connells. Retired from adventures and the espionage gig they had during World War II, Rick and Evie are living a quiet domestic life and suffering from extreme boredom. Brendan Fraser reprises the role of Rick, but here's the one replacement in the film that bothers me: Rachel Weisz did not come back to play Evie. She had expressed interest in doing another Mummy movie, but when this one came up she had issues with the script and - I have to think the second reason is 99% of it, because she saw the script for The Mummy Returns and still did that movie - had just given birth. Filling in for Weisz is Maria Bello. I like Bello, but it should have been Weisz.

While Rick struggles to fill his time and Evie writes books about their past adventures (the Mummy books were a hit), their son Alex (Luke Ford) is now off having new adventures as an archaeologist. Alex is part of an expedition that discovers the titular, heavily booby-trapped, ninja-guarded tomb, unearthing the Dragon Emperor and bringing his body to Shanghai. Alex's uncle Jonathan (John Hannah) just happens to own a night club in Shanghai, bringing to mind Temple of Doom. That touch of Indiana Jones this series had remained throughout.

The O'Connells are reunited in Shanghai just in time for a group of villains to put their plan to resurrect the Dragon Emperor and the Terracotta Army into motion. They're obviously into the idea of the Emperor taking over the world, as has been warned would happen if he is revived. There's always someone wanting a supernatural evil to rule the planet.

The Dragon Emperor is resurrected, of course. There wouldn't be much of a movie without him. Then, with the help of the tomb ninja, who is a woman named Lin (played by Isabella Leong) and has some kind of family connection to what happened to the Emperor long ago, the O'Connells do all they can to stop the new mummy from bringing his army back into the world. Large action sequences ensue, bringing excitement back into Rick and Evie's lives.

Along the way the characters end up in the snowy Himalayas, allowing for a cameo appearance by Abominable Snowmen (or Yetis, if you prefer). Lin is pals with the Yetis, and they're good friends to have. The Yetis are a wacky thing to have come out of nowhere, but it's a fun sort of wacky. I was not expecting these things.

Michelle Yeoh re-enters the picture by the end, when there's a bit of The Last Crusade at the edge of Shangri La, and it all builds up to a war centuries in the making.

The worldwide box office numbers for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor were right up there with those of its predecessors, so maybe it's not quite the overlooked entry that I see it as, although I never hear anyone reference it. It would be a shame if this one were to fade into obscurity while '99 and Returns endure, because when I gave it an honest chance years after its release I was pleasantly surprised. I actually enjoyed this one, and would have rather watched it in the theatre than Returns. It has goofball stuff in it for sure, but overall Cohen's approach was more subdued and less cartoony than Sommers', which I appreciated. This one had a more appealing tone than the movie it followed.

Even though I had some fun with the movies here and there, this Mummy trilogy wasn't really for me. Mummy '99 and Dragon Emperor are good enough... Returns not so much... but they're still not the sort of movies I feel compelled to watch all that often. Those classic installments with the likes of Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., and even Abbott and Costello are more my speed than this.

No comments:

Post a Comment