“It is better to be the right hand of the devil than in his path.” ~ Beni
“I only gamble with my life, never my money.” ~ Rick O’Connell
“You lied to me!” ~ Evelyn Carnahan
“I lie to everybody, what makes you so special?” ~ Jonathan Carnahan
“I am your sister!” ~ Evelyn
“Yes, well, that just makes you more gullible.” ~ Jonathan
“We are part of an ancient secret society. For over three thousand years we have guarded the City Of The Dead. We have sworn at manhood to do any and all in our power to stop the high priest Imhotep from being reborn into this world.” ~ Dr. Bay
“This creature is the bringer of death. It will never eat, it will never sleep, and it will never stop.” ~ Ardeth Bay
“By the way, why did you kiss me?” ~ Evelyn
“I dunno, I was about to be hanged. It seemed like a good idea at the time.” ~ Rick
With the walking ego otherwise known as Tom Cruise starring in a new Mummy film next year, it seems appropriate to review two of the films from some years ago, which didn’t take themselves too seriously and odds are will prove to still be more entertaining when compared to Cruise’s film. In 1999, director Stephen Sommers brought The Mummy to the big screens. It was a loose remake of the 1932 original, stressing action, adventure, and fantasy with a rich sense of humour in a tale of a cursed Egyptian high priest coming back to life in the 20th century.
The film opens in ancient Egypt, where the high priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) has a secret romance with Anck-su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez), the mistress of Pharoah Seti. Their relationship is exposed, the lovers kill the Pharoah, and while his love takes her life rather than be captured, Imhotep is ultimately punished with an ancient curse and buried alive with flesh eating scarab beetles. The order of bodyguards who have carried out the punishment at Hamunaptra, the City of the Dead, vow to guard the site forever.
In the wake of the First World War, members of the French foreign legion are bracing themselves for battle with desert raiders at the ruins of Hamunaptra. Among them is an American, Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and a cowardly soldier, Beni (Kevin J. O’Connor). During the skirmish, Rick sees something disturbing amid the sand. Several years later, Evelyn and Jonathan Carnahan (Rachel Weisz and John Hannah), a sister and brother pair of Egyptologists living in the country, meet Rick at a prison where he’s due to be hanged; Rick knows where the City of the Dead is, and his life is worth saving. And so the three are tied together in a journey to the city... where the cursed dead still waits in his sarcophagus.
The idea of an updated version of The Mummy had been around for a few years, starting in the early 90s. At one point Clive Barker had been on board to direct a pure horror take on the concept. At another point, George Romero was attached. Finally Stephen Sommers came on board with a premise that was along the lines of an Indiana Jones film- the serial style adventure film with a sense of humour, swashbuckling more than horrific. Sommers had done a number of different projects before- The Jungle Book, Tom and Huck, and Oliver Twist. His previous film prior to The Mummy was something that had a similar sort of tone. Deep Rising had featured horror, action, adventure, humour, and rogues as characters. The studio liked his proposal, and brought him on board to direct what would end up being a film that had fun with itself- something one doubts we’d ever see out of Tom Cruise.His style as a director, which admittedly can be up and down in terms of quality, works well here, as the film flows swiftly and he invests a good sense of humour into his directing style. For a look at the down side of his work, try wasting two hours of your life by watching one of those G.I Joe films, though as I said... it would be a waste.
The screenplay by Sommers has nods towards the original 1932 classic- the alias Boris Karloff’s Imhotep uses in the modern day matches the name of one of the characters in this film, and resurrection from the dead using the Book of the Dead is revisited here. So too is the idea of the villain single-mindedly pursuing the resurrection of his lost love. Where the original film stressed horror and suspense, this remake goes off in different directions, mixing action and adventure into the tale, as well as a rich sense of humour. There’s a lot of the influence of Indiana Jones in the story, with the setting in Egypt and the idea of tomb raiding and ancient mysteries, as well as the swashbuckling aspect of the characters.
Production took place primarily in Morocco and the United Kingdom, as Egypt at the time was deemed too unstable for filming. Location shooting involved exterior settings, while a good deal of underground chambers and passages, in which the film indulges in with regularity, was done in studio settings, with setwork taking on the look of ancient Egypt, both in terms of that time period and in terms of ruins in the modern era. There’s a lot of attention paid to detail in terms of set work, costuming, and props that give both periods- ancient Egypt and the 1920s era- a sense of reality. One feels they’re dropped down into the desert with period clothing and vehicles.
The CGI and special effects of the film do as they’re required. Much of that revolves around Imhotep himself, as well as the use of the various powers the curse has given him. It’s probably most spectacularly seen in his use of a sandstorm to thwart the heroes in the latter part of the film, but reflects as well in his appearance as his body regenerates, or other techniques he uses along the line. The CGI is also used in other resurrected mummies- Imhotep’s fellow priests- and in the periodic use of scarab beetles, who have a way of picking a body clean within seconds, which the real scarab beetles don’t do, but it looks good and horrific on screen. Throughout the film, the CGI does look real and effective- something that went slightly awry with one of the special effects in the sequel. The score by the late master composer Jerry Goldsmith is one of my favourites by him, filled with themes that stress adventure, romance, mystery, humour, and the exotic themes of a place not our own.
I like the choice in casting throughout the film. That goes from the major players to relatively minor ones. Bernard Fox, the British character actor who’s been in countless movies and television series, has a fun but poignant role as Winston Havlock, an acquaintance of Rick and military pilot who’s gone to seed in the desert, drinking his way into oblivion and lamenting the fact that he didn’t go down in glory like the rest of his friends in the Great War. Erick Avari, who came to North American attention first as a tribal leader in Stargate, plays the curator Dr. Bay, first coming across as a fussy and humourless bureaucrat before we learn that he’s also the leader of the Medjai, and a courageous man of knowledge. Jonathan Hyde often gets cast as unlikable stiff necked characters, which applies here. He’s an Egyptologist, Allen Chamberlain, leading a group of Americans. The character is dismissive and haughty, which Hyde plays to.
Patricia Velasquez appears in the prologue as Anck-Su-Namun, the object of Imhotep’s affections. We can see what the villain sees in her, though she’s as treacherous as he is, willing to do whatever she must to free herself of the position she’s in. There’s a boldness in her that matches Imhotep’s own. Boldness is something we can’t see in Beni, the lowlife henchman in the modern era. Kevin J. O’Connor had worked with Sommers in Deep Rising, and while the snarkiness carries over into this character, he’s less sympathetic. His Beni is a greedy, opportunistic coward, the sort who runs from danger but bargains with the devil; it’s hard to feel sorry for him when he’s getting his butt kicked around.
Arnold Vosloo is perfectly cast as Imhotep. His performance may be augmented by special effects, but it’s strongly grounded in him as an actor. He plays Imhotep as determined and ruthless, single-minded in his quest to resurrect his lost love. Thus from his point of view, he’s not the villain, which makes the role work so well. There’s a strong sense of menace in his performance, and while everyone else in the film seem to be playing their parts with a wink in the eye, Vosloo plays the role completely straight. His character, caught up in this supernatural curse, is a formidable adversary.
Oded Fehr was well chosen to play Ardeth Bay, a warrior leader of the Medjai who comes into contact with the main characters. He and his order, a secret society of desert warriors, have sworn to protect the secrets of the City of the Dead, and that first brings them into conflict, and then alongside, the three main characters. Ardeth is humourless at first, though we do catch a dry sense of humour as things go along. And he’s courageous, formidable, and decisive as a leader of men, though he does defer to Doctor Bay- one assumes they’re son and father, though the film doesn’t touch on that.
John Hannah is one of those actors who can make a role interesting just by talking. His Jonathan is a fun role for the actor; while he’s apparently an Egyptologist, he doesn’t take the job that seriously. Jonathan is something of a bumbler, a greedy sort of fellow with few scruples. He’s not that interested in history, more in just getting rich, and that drives him. Jonathan is also something of a grifter and thief, a man fond of lying, especially if it gets him out of trouble. Fortunately he’s also a whole lot of fun, and while he’s not above taking advantage of his sister’s good nature, he’s fond of her too.
Rachel Weisz was perfectly cast as Evelyn. The first impression she makes on the audience is of a bookish but clumsy librarian, eager to prove herself to fellow Egyptologists, who dismiss her as a woman. She’s peevish at times, particularly with her brother, and then early on with Rick, who she dismisses as arrogant and rude, even though she has need of information he knows. And yet the bickering dynamic she has with him gives way to a bond, and we can believe the chemistry between Evelyn and Rick, because it develops as the film goes along.
The leading role had been offered to various actors at one point or another- Cruise himself, as well as Brad Pitt or Matt Damon had been offered the role. Fraser got it, and was well suited to the role. He brings to Rick the sort of swashbuckler sensibility that Errol Flynn would have gotten, and the actor doesn’t take himself too seriously, which is vital for Rick’s world view. Rick is a scoundrel and a rascal, which makes him a fun character to watch, but he’s also courageous and finds a reason to see things through as the film develops. Fraser makes the role fun, and his Rick is a convincing leading man.
The Mummy might be a loose remake of the original film, but it goes off in its own direction and takes on a life of its own. It’s a satisfying adventure with a lot of humour, finding a balance between horror and thriller. In some ways it is a comic book tale or a roller coaster story, but the pace always moves along well, and the characters are memorable and fun. Add to that a formidable adversary, and the resulting film is an enjoyable one. Even though it’ll leave you shuddering at the very words scarab beetle.