REVIEW: The Mummy (1999)

In 1926 Egypt, an expedition to the desert ruins of Hamunaptra accidentally unleashes a 3,000 year-old mummified priest from ancient Egypt. While the priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) revives himself, adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and librarian Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) race to find the means of defeating him.

The Mummy, a 1999 loose remake of the 1932 feature, is an open and unashamed adventure film pastiche. While ostensibly recreating Karl Freund’s original film, director Stephen Sommers actually dedicates a lot more effort to recreating Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones franchise. There is the period Egyptian setting, the cynical American protagonist, the blend of action and supernatural horror, and the constantly active serialised nature of the plot. It is nowhere near as accomplished as Spielberg’s films (at least the first three at any rate), nor does it match the atmosphere of Freund, but as a breezy and enjoyable Summer blockbuster it absolutely fits the bill.

The film makes great use of a solid cast. Brendan Fraser is one of those Hollywood actors who seems to have been born 40 years too late, and works brilliantly as a matinee idol with a combination of heroism and humour. As Evelyn Rachel Weisz arguably over-plays her role a little, but in the heightened context of the film it broadly works well. Evelyn is a wonderful character as well: a woman in the 1920s who is the smartest member of the lead cast. She is self-assured and confident, and presents a rare sort of character for this kind of a film. As the titular mummy Arnold Vosloo does a wonderful job. He has a striking screen presence, and manages to create plenty of sympathy despise his villainous actions. Similarly effective, albeit in a comparatively limited role, is Oded Fehr as the Medjai swordsman Ardeth Bey. It is sad that the Mummy films did not propel Fehr to stardom: he certainly has the ability to be a leading man, and one can only suspect the underlying ethnic bias of Hollywood preventing him from going as far as he deserves.

In terms of comic relief the film relies on John Hannah as Evelyn’s brother Jonathan, who grates somewhat, and Stephen Sommers regular Kevin J. O’Connor as the traitorous Beni, who is pretty much the funniest thing in the whole film.

Visually speaking The Mummy is wonderfully inventive, with an array of effects-driven sequences popping up every few minutes to keep the audience engaged. Some of them have understandably dated – the computer-generated effects are 18 years old – but they have been created with care and integrity, which makes them perfectly effective in context. Some strong design work, particularly in the case of Imhotep’s dessicated form, helps a great deal.

The Mummy is not a great film – it is much too derivative for that – but it is a wonderfully enjoyable one. While most of its beats and tricks are familiar with most viewers, there is a sense of urgency and fun that keeps the whole enterprise ticking along. While its sequels both failed to capture the same breezy appeal, this first film at least is a great diversion; the sort of matinee adventure at which an earlier Fraser would have absolutely excelled.

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