“Knowing my brother-in-law, he probably deserves whatever you’re about to do to him. But this is my house, and I have certain rules about snakes and dismemberment.” ~ Rick O’Connell
“Those knickers are not mine.” ~ Evelyn O’Connell
“If a man does not embrace his past, he has no future.” ~ Ardeth Bay
“The Underworld awaits you.” ~ Imhotep
“What a bright little child. Your mother must be missing you terribly. If you wish to see her again, you better behave.” ~ Meela
“If you see anyone come running out screaming, don’t worry, it’s just me.” ~ Jonathan Carnahan
“I haven’t lost it, Mum. I just can’t find it. There’s a difference.” ~ Alex O’Connell
“It’s only a chest. No harm ever came from opening a chest.” ~ Evelyn
“Yeah, and no harm ever came from reading a book. You remember how that one went?” ~ Rick
With the success of The Mummy, a sequel was inevitable, and so it was in 2001 that The Mummy Returns came to theatres, reuniting the O’Connell family with the title villain and introducing another supernaturally cursed inhabitant of the ancient world into the mix. Director Stephen Sommers came back with the primary players of the first movie for this follow up that carries on the story and remains in the adventure- swashbuckling tradition of its predecessor.
Starting five thousand years in the past, we’re introduced to a desert warrior known as the Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson), leading an army on a campaign of conquest. He is ultimately thrown back and driven into exile with his army, bargains away his soul to the god Anubis for the chance to destroy his enemies, and leads a new army of jackal headed warriors against Egypt. Unfortunately Anubis calls in his markers and claims the Scorpion King for himself.
In 1933, at the site of Hamunaptra, a cult bent on resurrecting Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) are busy searching for his remains. They’re led by Baltus Hafez (Alun Armstrong), who is accompanied by a mysterious woman, Meela (Patricia Velasquez), who is the reincarnated Anck-su-Namun. The efforts are spied upon by the Medjai warrior Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr, back from the first film). We also find Rick and Evelyn O’Connell (Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz) on a dig in Egypt. In the years since the previous film, they’ve gotten married, and have a young and precocious son, Alex (Freddie Boath). What starts out as a dig for the two ends up leading the family, accompanied by Evie’s rascal brother Jonathan (John Hannah) into a race against time to thwart a resurrected Imhotep from causing even more trouble than he has before.
Sommers returned as director and writer of the screenplay, which hinges on something from the 1932 classic that had been bypassed in the 1999 remake- reincarnation and past lives. The theme presents itself both in the reborn Anck-su-Namun looking much as she did in ancient Egypt. It also shows itself in Evie, troubled by dreams of a past life that play into events of the prologue of the first film, and this film plays out the idea of that past life, which includes things she could have no personal knowledge of. The story stays strongly to the established status quo of the first film, being an adventure and swashbuckling tale with a sense of humour. It includes bringing back characters, some of whom are not that different from the first film, others who have grown and matured, and also bringing in one new character who’s something of a reflection of a minor character from the first film.
The story also presents more of the concept of curses of the ancient world- not only does Imhotep return, with all of his powers intact, but the Scorpion King has been subjected to a very different kind of curse. We get more of the ancient secrets and hidden treasures aspect of the first film, the idea of death traps and dark dangers continue to play out this time, which ring true to the genre, and there’s that roller coaster cliffhanger sensibility to it all. It’s not quite as fresh as the first time out, and not quite as fun- life and death are much more at stake this time, but at the same time, the characters are not used as well as they were in the first film.
The set pieces of the film feel very much like the original film- quite like you’d expect both out of ancient Egypt in its prime or as a ruin, depending on the time period. That sort of attention to detail plays out in terms of props as well, as the Scorpion King’s army looks outfitted as you’d expect them to look, or in the current day, a brow beaten wreck of a pilot’s quarters look just like the wreck you might expect it to look like. The special effects of the first film, which did so well in conveying the supernatural threat of the Mummy, are carried over here as well, in various ways, most of which are successful. The Mummy’s powers are what we’ve seen before, and the CGI conveys that. Rather than have the sand wall sequence of the first film, we’re given a wall of water in a tight canyon, a sequence that works very well indeed. And the CGI’s new additions apply well to the vicious little pygmy mummies or the jackal headed warriors- the waves of them racing across sand dunes late in the film presents an ominous threat indeed.
Where it doesn’t seem to work is with the final form of the Scorpion King- the look of the character is inconsistent, and at times doesn’t seem to be occupying the same space as the actors, a problem that seems perplexing, since the CGI the rest of the time works to that effect. You find yourself wondering if the special effects crew ran out of time and realized, “hey, we still haven’t done the Scorpion King sequence”, or if, the time being what it was, way too many CGI specialists were off getting involved in The Lord Of The Rings. That’s compensated for in some way by the score from composer Alan Silvestri, who gives a richly nuanced, fierce score that moves in new directions from the original score, but maintains an exotic sound.
The film brings in a few new players, aside from the original cast. That starts with the young Freddie Boath as Alex; he’s the sort of incorrigible child who spends most of the film being kidnapped and yet never panics once, knowing two things- that his parents are coming and that his captors can’t kill him yet. He spends his time irritating his captors (“are we there yet? Are we there yet?”) and leaving messages for his parents along the way. As much as I can sympathize with his captors at having to put up with him, Boath’s performance and touches with the character certainly ring true. Shaun Parkes turns up as Izzy, a zeppelin pilot who’s known Rick in the old days and harbours old grudges. He’s something of a reflection of Bernard Fox’s Winston from the original film, an eccentric pilot figuratively rotting away in the desert, and he’s more of a motormouth, griping about everything.
Alun Armstrong puts on a thick accent and over the top performance as the cult leader and curator Hafez, a man who just naturally assumes throughout the film that he’s in good with Imhotep and surely the undead priest will treat him with favour. Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje, who’s played brooding characters in films and television projects before, plays the chief henchman Lock-Nah, a ruthless and impatient thug who finds the young Alex to be profoundly annoying, and who has bad blood where Ardeth is concerned.
Dwayne Johnson marked this as his first feature film role, having had spent his time in the wrestling world. The part of the Scorpion King, which he reprised for a prequel, really just calls for a muscular, formidable physical presence, which he supplies, and we only really see the actor in the prologue- his final form is pretty much all CGI. The actor glowers and menaces throughout the prologue, establishing himself as a considerable threat, with a hint of arrogance and defiance.
Patricia Velasquez has more to do this time out in a dual role, as Meela, the modern day reincarnation of her original character, Anck-su-Namun, who’s brought back to life as the film goes along. There’s a deviousness and treachery to the character that fits what’s come before, and while the love across millennia angle continues to play out this time, there’s a late in the film twist that calls into question just how deeply devoted she is- or how selfish she can be. There’s also a personal rivalry in the character, both in terms of the distant past and the present, playing itself out with Evelyn.
Arnold Vosloo returns as the eminently dangerous Imhotep, resurrected once more to unleash a world domination ploy. To do that this time out requires taking control of the Scorpion King’s army, and while he’s got his sights set on that, he’s also preoccupied with what had his attention the first time out- bringing back his long lost love back from the dead. He’s easily irritated- Alex proves to be a source of irritation, and perhaps over confident, but there’s also a key moment late in the film in which he shows himself to be devious as well, and then ultimately to be in despair. That last moment’s a nice touch for the character- it gives him humanity that he lost somewhere along the line.
Oded Fehr returns as Ardeth Bay, still firmly a Medjai, a warrior and leader of the secret society. He’s still given to talk in an expository way. I find myself wondering if the Medjai have considerable financial resources that allow them to travel quickly in the world, and how a man like Ardeth copes with Customs. He continues to be courageous and decisive as a warrior, calm under pressure, and brings a dry sense of humour to his performance.
John Hannah returns as Jonathan, and continues to be the most fun member of the cast, a charming scoundrel with few scruples and a tendency to find himself in trouble. He’s still greedy, still obsessed with getting rich- perhaps to the point of disregarding personal safety. The character is still very much a comic relief sort of person, getting some of the best lines of the film, but he’s also resourceful in his own way.
Rachel Weisz returns as Evelyn, more self assured and confident than the clumsy librarian we first met. As an archaeologist, she’s more take charge than before, and she’s picked up a few handy skills in armed and unarmed combat thanks to her husband. The two characters play off against each other well as a married couple, creating a believable tone in that relationship, sharing worries about their son, and Weisz also makes the hard to believe aspect of the story- ie, reincarnation- still feel plausible in the way she performs both past and present aspects of her character.
Brendan Fraser's performance as Rick continues to build on where the character has come from as well. He's still a dashing scoundrel, and yet has matured and become somewhat more responsible. He's wry and doesn't take things too seriously, but at the same time is in a place where worry for his wife and son comes naturally too. Fraser's take on the character maintains the swashbuckling aspect of Rick, a man who rises to the occasion and shows no fear in the face of death. It's a good action role, and definitely worlds better than what Tom Cruise will bring to whatever his leading role will be in the rebooted version.
The Mummy Returns is a worthwhile follow up to the first film, though it has some problems, being not quite as fresh as the original, and having that perplexing odd CGI element that just doesn't add up to the rest of the CGI. It increases the stakes of the franchise, maintains the humourous tone, and has a satisfying pace that keeps the audience entertained. With another Mummy soon to be in theatres next year, and featuring a whole different premise and the unfortunate casting of Hollywood's biggest ego, these Mummy films- all three of them- stand out as an example of how to get it right.