The Mummy (1999)
The sands will rise. The heavens will part. The power will be unleashed.
If you cast your mind back to the start of 1999, many of us thought that the biggest popcorn film of the year was going to be George Lucas’ long-awaited return to ‘A galaxy far, far away …’ with the first of his Star Wars prequels, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (bloody Jar Jar!). But it was actually Stephen Sommers’ archeological adventure, The Mummy, that really stood out, delivering a perfect blend of action, adventure, comedy, romance, and horror, ultimately redefining the blockbuster for the early 21st century. Without it, we may have never gotten films like Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean series or Jon Turteltaub’s National Treasure (2004).
The Mummy first came to life in Universal’s 1932 monster movie of the same name, where Boris Karloff played the evil Imhotep, an Egyptian high priest who was cursed for 3,000 plus years before springing from his sarcophagus to cause chaos. The Mummy was later revived in a 1940 remake titled The Mummy’s Hand, which saw Tom Tyler star as the titular boogyman, but this time named Kharis. We also got a bunch of sequels where Lon Chaney Jr. portrayed the bandaged baddie. The monster was resurrected again in the 1955 horror-comedy Abbott and Costello Meet the Mummy, where Eddie Parker played Klaris, a cousin of Kharis’. With that in mind, Sommers’ The Mummy, which is a loose remake of Universal’s 1932 original, has more in common with the widescreen matinees of yesteryear than it does the black-and-white chillers that inspired it.
The film opens with an exceptional prologue set in 1290 B.C., in the sweltering city of Thebes, Egypt, where a high priest named Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) is having a love affair with Anck Su Namun (Patricia Velásquez), one of the Pharaoh’s (Aharon Ipalé) favorite mistresses. When the ruler discovers the pair, they kill him and attempt to flee, but Anck Su Namun is caught and sacrifices herself for her love. Believing that he can bring her back from the dead, Imhotep, with the aid of his priests, steals her body and takes it to Hamunaptra, the city of the dead, where he tries to resurrect his beloved, but the ceremony is interrupted by the Pharaoh’s guards and the Medjai. For punishment, Imhotep’s followers are mummified alive, while he’s sentenced to suffer the worst of Egyptian curses, the Hom-Dai; he is tortured, bandaged, locked in a sarcophagus (with flesh-eating scarabs) and buried, left undead for eternity, beneath a statue of the Egyptian god Anubis, kept under strict surveillance by the Medjai, who have sworn to prevent his return.
Cut to 1923, amid a raging battle at the ruins of Hamunaptra. It’s there that we meet dashing American soldier and adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), who looks to be in a spot of bother. Cornered, O’Connell eventually escapes with his life thanks to some bad juju from the locals who flee the area when they realize they’re at the site of Imhotep’s entombment. Before darting off, however, O’Connell hears some bizarre noises and notices something strange in the sand.
The story then jumps to Cairo three years later, and we’re introduced to clumsy librarian and Egyptologist Evelyn Carnahan (a charming Rachel Weisz) in a brilliant scene where she knocks over a bookcase at the Museum of Antiquities, which causes a domino effect that pretty much topples the entire library. After getting blasted by her boss, curator Dr. Terrence Bey (Erick Avari), Evelyn finds her brother Jonathan (John Hannah) fumbling around at the museum. Having thought to have stumbled onto some sort of treasure, he shows her a box that he nicked with a map inside that reveals the whereabouts of the legendary Hamunaptra. Evelyn, of course, decides to follow the trail and venture to the fabled city for scientific reason, while her brother tags along for the riches they may find there. In order to make the journey, though, they’ll need the help of O’Connell — the guy Jonathan stole the trinket from — seeing as he’d made the trip before and somehow survived; problem is, he’s about to be hung by Warden Gad Hassan (comedian Omid Djalili — this guy’s great) at a dingy prison. Using her geeky charms, Evelyn persuades the warden to let Rick go by cutting him in on some of their expedition’s profits, before convincing Rick to lead them to Hamunaptra as repayment for saving his skin.
And so, the four embark on a quest across golden deserts where they’ll have to fend off mysterious warriors, and a rival group of American cowboys (Tuc Watkins, Stephen Dunham, and Corey Johnson) who are being guided by Rick’s rival, sniveling Hungarian treasure-seeker Beni (Kevin J. O’Connor). If that wasn’t bad enough, once they arrive at the crumbling city, they accidentally reawaken the mummified corpse of the vengeful Imhotep deep in the shadowy catacombs. Now, to save the world from his ten biblical plagues (think swarms of locusts, files, firestorms and so on), our heroes must stop the bald baddie from bringing Anck Su Namun back from the grave (sheesh, talk about undying love!).
Written by director Stephen Sommers, with story assist from Lloyd Fonvielle, The Bride (1985), and Kevin Jarre, The Devil’s Own (1997), The Mummy’s fun tongue-in-cheek script takes its time to set the scene, introducing us to its colorful band of characters and their scenarios before letting things rip in its back half — and this really works to its favor. By the time Fraser tells an old war-time acquaintance that he’s gotta, ‘Rescue the damsel in distress, kill the bad guy, and save the world,’ we’re totally with him!
It helps that the casting is impeccable. Brendan Fraser, George of the Jungle (1997), delivers the swashbuckling goods as square-jawed hero Rick O’Connell, a role that more or less defined his career — it’s a shame that he disappeared into obscurity shortly afterward. Rachel Weisz, Constantine (2005), absolutely nails it (both the nerdiness and sassiness) as proud, headstrong librarian Evelyn, the part pretty much putting her on the movie star map right after the film’s international success. Moreover, Fraser and Weisz share an on-screen chemistry that’s hard to resist, one that rivals greats such as Jack and Rose from Titanic (1997) or Rhett and Scarlett from Gone with the Wind (1939). Arnold Vosloo, Hard Target (1993), does a lot with very little dialogue as the mummy (who’s sort of like an Egyptian Terminator), while Sommers’ regular Kevin J. O’Connor, Deep Rising (1998), looks to be having the time of his life as the slippery secondary antagonist, Beni. It’s also worth mentioning Israeli actor Oded Fehr, Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), who steals all his scenes as Ardeth Bay, the horseback riding leader of the Medjai.
Although the film is over 20 years old, the VFX by George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic hold up and manage to impress — from a battle where Imhotep spins into a sandstorm and chases our heroes through the desert, to a finale that sees Fraser face-off, sword in hand, against an army of skeletons in an underground temple, the effects are still quite impressive. Just like the Indiana Jones flicks, The Mummy can also be quite scary, mainly as the newly awakened Imhotep uses the flesh and organs of those who revived him to regenerate his decomposed body — there’s a genius scene where a scarab crawls into a decaying hole in Imhotep’s cheek that’s stuck with me for some reason. Heck, there are things in here that are just plain weird, and yet they’ve become synonymous with the movie; Imhotep and his reanimated minions, for instance, can stretch their mouths like they’re made of rubber. Why? Who knows, but it looks cool.
Other technical aspects deserve praise, too, including the rousing score by the late Jerry Goldsmith, L.A. Confidential (1997), the detailed costumes by John Bloomfield, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), and the excellent production design by Allan Cameron, Starship Troopers (1997).
To wrap things up, everything about The Mummy works — from the casting to the screenplay, the costumes, FX, music, etc. — making it one of the best action-adventure films of our time, a non-stop thrill ride joining the likes of rollicking classics à la Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Jason and the Argonauts (1963). Although Universal tried to re-boot the series with the Tom Cruise-starring The Mummy in 2017, filmmakers just couldn’t recapture that lightning-in-a-bottle success of the 1999 hit — look, it didn’t help that the studio was trying to make several films in one, but that’s another story. So, if you’re reading this right now and haven’t seen The Mummy, what are you waiting for? It’s time to throw on your exploring hat and head on an Egyptian adventure! You’ll dig it!
4.5 / 5 – Highly Recommended
Reviewed by Mr. Movie