The Mummy’s Revenge, or why the 1999 ‘Mummy’ movie is an overlooked classic
If you’ve been watching the box office this weekend, you probably know that The Mummy reboot was dead on arrival, bombing with a $31.5 million opening weekend. While it’s been doing much better overseas, it’s looking like the latest attempt by Universal Studios to launch a modern movie franchise based off the Universal Monsters will suffer the same fate as The Wolfman and Dracula Untold.
What has caught my attention though is that the conversation surrounding The Mummy reboot has all been centered on the last Mummy reboot, the one launched in 1999 that resulted in a fairly successful franchise. People talked longingly about the Stephen Sommers franchise, or cracked jokes about how Brendan Fraser ended up proving a better lead than Tom Cruise. Box office analysts have pointed out that The Mummy reboot is on track to make less than any of the movies in the prior Mummy franchise, including The Scorpion King spin off. A few film writers have even been doing retrospectives saying that, in light of the failures of the 2017 version of The Mummy, perhaps it’s time to reappraise the 1999 version of The Mummy.
I say it’s about damned time. I’ve been an unapologetic fan of both Stephen Sommers and The Mummy franchise he created, and both are long overdue for their time in the sun.
With all due respect to Boris Karloff and the classic Universal Monsters, as well as the Hammer films starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, I’m part of the generation that came of age where The Mummy was played by Arnold Vosloo, where he was thwarted by Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and Oded Fehr, and where the battle between them over the fate of the world made for one of the most entertaining movies of the past 25 years. The Mummy is considered a cult classic by many, but I’m here to go a step farther, and simply call it a classic.
The movie opens with an Egyptian high priest named Imhotop being cursed and mummified alive after assassinating the pharaoh. Thousands of years later, in the 1920s, an aspiring Egyptologist named Evelyn Carnahan and her scoundrel brother Johnathan come into possession of a map leading to a long lost Egyptian city, and seek the aid of an American adventurer named Rick O’Connell who found his way there once before. They seek to beat a rival team there, while all the while, they are chased by a secret society dedicated towards keeping people away from the city. It becomes clear why when they arrive only to accidentally release Imhotop, who sets out to reclaim his lost powers, reclaim Egypt and then conquer the world, and all three groups are going to have to work together to prevent that from happening.
Probably the biggest strength of The Mummy is that it has a script that manages to mix a range of tones and styles almost perfectly. The Mummy is one of the rare movies where you can have body horror in one scene, slapstick comedy in the next, and where the transition feels completely natural. It was scary, it was funny, it was thrilling, and it was heavily salted with a sense of adventure and romance the entire way. The Mummy treads very familiar territory, and does very little new, but everything it does, it does with confidence and executes with skill.
Of course, a major reason why The Mummy works as well as it does is that is has a very solid ensemble cast, and the movie allows them each get little moments to shine.
Leading the cast is Brendan Fraser as Rick O’Connell, a role that in an ironic twist given the casting for the new Mummy reboot, was originally offered to Tom Cruise, as well as Matt Damon and Brad Pitt among others before they cast Fraser, and it’s hard to picture the Mummy without him. Fraser brings just the right amount of charm and machismo to make O’Connell likable and heroic, but also a sense of comic timing that makes him fun, and lends itself well to much of The Mummy’s funnier scenes. While I’m far from the first to lament he had few other sizable roles outside The Mummy franchise, it’s hard to see the franchise without him, and it’s kind of heartwarming to see how many others felt the same, given how one of the conversations dominating this year’s reboot of The Mummy has been variations of “Where’s Brendan Fraser?”.
With the possible exception of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson for his role as the Scorpion King in the sequels and the spinoff, the breakout star of The Mummy has to have been Rachel Weisz as Evelyn “Evie” Carnahan. She’s had a lively career ever since playing Evie in The Mummy, but it’s easy to see why this was her breakout role, playing a headstrong bookworm more than capable of holding her own against even an undead monster threatening to end the world. It also helps that Weisz and Fraser have great chemistry together, both comically and romantically, If you ever doubt the success of the Mummy franchise had as much to do with Rachel Weisz as it did with Brendan Fraser, watch The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, where Evie was recast, and her absence is palpable. It’s also yet another failing of The Mummy reboot, where the love interest never evolves much beyond being a generic love interest.
Of course, every great hero needs an equally great villain, and in a career known for great villains from Hard Target to 24, Arnold Vosloo’s performance as Imhotep is still probably his best. Even when he’s not literally sucking the life out of people or commanding a legion of mind-controlled slaves, Vosloo brings an intensity to the role that, more than anything else, sells Imhotep as a force of nature.
Even the supporting cast is great. John Hannah is hilarious in the comic relief role of Jonathan Carnahan, while never descending into complete buffoonery. Stephen Dunham, Corey Johnson, and Tuc Watkins, as the trio of rival American treasure hunters who get hunted one-by-one by Imhotep, are all likable as the friendly rivals of the main cast so that their various deaths are actually somewhat sad. Even Kevin J. O’Conner, as the weaselly coward Beni gets one of my favorite moments in the movie when cornered by Imhotep, he starts pulling out various religious icons and offering prayers to several different pantheons, before pulling out a Star of David and chanting in Hebrew, which Imhotep recognizes as “the language of the slaves”, and proceeding to offer Beni status as his minion. Not every movie can claim that even the villain’s weaselly minion gets to claim a memorable moment like that.
If I’m naming favorites though, mine has always been Oded Fehr as the Bedouin warrior Ardeth Bey, who managed to be just the right mix of mysterious and badass to make him my favorite character ever since I first saw the movie at the age of 9. I’m apparently not the only one who liked him either – the original plan was for Ardeth to die in the climax, but test audiences like him well enough they let him live, and even brought him back for The Mummy Returns.
Lastly, you have the direction and style of the film, which even today, close to 20 years later, it still holds up very well, almost unblemished. I give a lot of credit to director Stephen Sommers, who is on record having said his favorite movie was the original Boris Karloff version of The Mummy, and as a result, his remake was very much a labor of love, and it shows. The Mummy boasts some very impressive action set pieces, which is somewhat surprising that Sommer’s prior directing experience consists of a pair of Tom Sawyer movies made for Disney. The Mummy was filmed almost entirely in Morocco, and its period Egypt feels like a living, breathing place.
One thing that surprised me looking back is how very little of the movie’s visuals were CGI. Though The Mummy did boast what was cutting edge CGI for the time, albeit some has not aged well, most of the film’s special effects were a mixture of makeup, stunt work and practical effects, even using animatronics and live animals for certain scenes. It really helps The Mummy managed to be one of those movies in the 90s that hit that sweet spot where CGI enabled wildly creative visuals, while still avoiding overusing it to the point of dragging down the film. You know, like The Mummy Returns.
I may have enjoyed The Mummy Returns, and have come to consider Dwayne Johnson as one of the liveliest screen presences in modern Hollywood, but this will always be one of those showcases how bad CGI can wreck a movie, and age it horribly as the years go by. But I digress.
It’s oddly appropriate to mention the sequels here though, given that for all the recent attempts to create a cinematic universe based on the Universal Monsters, it was Stephen Sommers and The Mummy franchise that came the closest to launching one. The Mummy had two moderately successful sequels that were mostly good, a spin off in the form of The Scorpion King, which I consider a guilty pleasure, and a spiritual successor in Sommers’ own Van Helsing, which while bad, is still very entertaining. It probably helps that they all had what Universal’s recent attempts all lacked, a sense of fun and a vision from a filmmaker passionate about more than making money.
All in all though, The Mummy was and still is a damned fun, entertaining movie that, to some degree, every great movie should have: a good mix of thrills, chills and laughs, an engaging and likable cast, some impressive set pieces, and a few memorable moments that stick with you. It’s also very rewatchable, and some CGI aside, has aged beautifully – The Mummy came out in 1999, the same year as The Matrix and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and I’d go as far as saying it’s aged far better than either of them.
While I’d never go as far as to call The Mummy a masterpiece, it’s absolutely one of those movies you have to see at least once, and is certainly far more than just the dumb popcorn flick it was once dismissed as. I’d compare it to Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl in that regards, where the sheer entertainment value and rewatchability alone are enough to elevate it to greatness – the fact it’s a memorable, well-made movie is just a bonus. Sometimes, the fact a movie is a joy to watch again and again is enough.