Skip to main content

This just keeps gettin' better and better.


The Mummy
(1999)

If The Matrix was the zeitgeist-defining event of the summer of 1999, having a surplus of vitality and resonance that left The Phantom Menace looking bloated  and stranded, there was another pretender to the blockbuster crown that no one expected to be a sizable hit. One might argue that The Matrix captured something of the “never seen before” quality of the first Star Wars film. If it did, The Mummy was merely content to fill the gap in the audience’s desire for an Indiana Jones knock-off. Any knock-off would do, which goes some way to explaining how such an average film became the third biggest genre movie that wasn’t The Sixth Sense that season.

It ended up in eighth place in for the year (sixth worldwide) and guaranteed a quickly thrown-together sequel (that looked shoddy even by its director’s slipshod standards). Curiously, while that film was bigger in the US, international audiences seemed aware of its inferiority and it didn’t do so well. But still, this was a successful franchise and surprisingly it took another seven years before a third installment arrived. In the same year that it’s true inspiration (Indy, rather than the horror series that bequeathed the title and, loosely, the subject matter) made a lacklustre return to the screen.

Make no mistake, The Mummy is a family action movie. What trappings of horror there are, are so diluted by their CGI presentation as to be nigh on inconsequential; this is as scary as Scooby Doo. Universal’s plan to relaunch of one of its major monsters had gone through a number of directors over the previous decade, including Clive Barker, George Romero and Joe Dante. All of whom would surely have brought something more interesting to the screen that Stephen Sommers’ reheated leftovers.

Yes, Stephen Sommers. Who would go on to such resounding failure with the rest of the studio’s creatures in the overblown disaster that is Van Helsing. With the success of The Adventure s of Huck Finn and The Jungle Book (and the failure of the surprisingly good fun Deep Rising) behind him, Sommers had sufficient clout to demand a significant budget (previous plans had been to spend as little as feasible, one of the reasons, horror content being an other, that so many filmmakers exited the project).

There are no less than six credited writers attached to the screenplay (including John L Balderston’s for the 1932 original), but you wouldn’t have guessed. This comes across as a typically Sommers-like first draft affair, incoherent of structure and crassly witless of dialogue. There isn’t much you’d think could go wrong; the prologue introduces High Priest Imhotep reasonably well, before leaping to 1926 and Rick O’Connell’s (Brendan Fraser) encounter with supernatural forces at the site of his tomb. A few years later he leads an expedition back there, including Rachel Weisz and John Hannah’s brother and sister duo, some fellow Americans and dodgy comedy Arab Beni Gabor (Kevin J O’Connor).

But Sommers fluffs the plot logic every step of the way. Rather than killing or expelling them, the Medjai who guard the tomb give the group 24 hours to leave. Which, of course, is more than enough time to unleash Imhotep’s evil upon the world. Later, we suddenly leap back to Cairo for more frenetic carnage. When the tone is so shallow and the pace so furious, there’s no time for character or the building up of atmosphere.  If Indiana Jones added layers and depth to the classic Republic serials, The Mummy is closer to the strained gag fests of Abbot and Costello meet… (the broad tone – everything in this film is broad – is set from the outset in an excruciatingly elaborate gag where clumsy librarian Weisz causes the domino toppling of a series of bookcases).

It’s also a problem when the menace in your film as is an onslaught of very obvious CGI. This would reach a nadir in the sequel, but the scares amount to a bug-eyed mummy with a stretchy jaw, furious sandstorms and swarms of scarabs cascading over everything in their path. Maybe an undiscerning nipper would be bothered (although, this was a 12/PG-13, so a tot isn’t the target audience). None of its is very tangible, even given the creepiness of some of the ideas (creepy crawlies getting under your skin is very potent, but has little impact on screen). Arnold Vosloo has an imperious presence, but his villainy is undercooked and not really very interesting.

The trio of Fraser, Weisz and Hannah are agreeable, however. Fraser has sufficient sense of humour to embrace a part like this, even if he lacks any edge as an actor (can anyone recall a memorable role for him since, say, Looney Tunes?) Hannah follows the line of less-than-admirable Brits that Terry-Thomas excelled at; it’s just a shame that the writing isn’t up to snuff. Weisz suffers most obviously from a role that runs the gamut from B to B in development, playing the plucky gal who swoons for the adventurer hero (no wonder she didn’t return for the third movie).  As for Connor’s Beni, he’s clearly having enormous fun and it’s certainly a scene-stealer. But it’s closer to Jar Jar Binks as a treasure trove of laughs than anything approaching great comic villainy.

The problem with the movie, and his directorial efforts in general, is Sommers just doesn’t care about anything that isn’t in aid of the deliriously giddy momentum he’s pursuing. He’s like the sugar rush kid in need of a fix; that The Mummy is decidedly subdued in comparison to subsequent films tells you all you need to know about his appetite for bigger, broader, emptier. The period trappings have none of the weight of the Indy films because the director’s sensibility is entirely contemporary; that’s how he shoots the film, writes the dialogue and directs the actors. All of which means that The Mummy is an effective-enough crowd-pleaser but it’s not something you’ll feel the need to revisit (which beckons the question of why I did!)

**1/2

Popular posts from this blog

You were this amazing occidental samurai.

Ricochet (1991) (SPOILERS) You have to wonder at Denzel Washington’s agent at this point in the actor’s career. He’d recently won his first Oscar for Glory , yet followed it with less-than-glorious heart-transplant ghost comedy Heart Condition (Bob Hoskins’ racist cop receives Washington’s dead lawyer’s ticker; a recipe for hijinks!) Not long after, he dipped his tentative toe in the action arena with this Joel Silver production; Denzel has made his share of action fare since, of course, most of it serviceable if unremarkable, but none of it comes near to delivering the schlocky excesses of Ricochet , a movie at once ingenious and risible in its plot permutations, performances and production profligacy.

No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.

The Matrix  (1999) (SPOILERS) Twenty years on, and the articles are on the defining nature of The Matrix are piling up, most of them touching on how its world has become a reality, or maybe always was one. At the time, its premise was engaging enough, but it was the sum total of the package that cast a spell – the bullet time, the fashions, the soundtrack, the comic book-as-live-action framing and styling – not to mention it being probably the first movie to embrace and reflect the burgeoning Internet ( Hackers doesn’t really count), and subsequently to really ride the crest of the DVD boom wave. And now? Now it’s still really, really good.

Well, something’s broke on your daddy’s spaceship.

Apollo 13 (1995) (SPOILERS) The NASA propaganda movie to end all NASA propaganda movies. Their original conception of the perilous Apollo 13 mission deserves due credit in itself; what better way to bolster waning interest in slightly naff perambulations around a TV studio than to manufacture a crisis event, one emphasising the absurd fragility of the alleged non-terrestrial excursions and the indomitable force that is “science” in achieving them? Apollo 13 the lunar mission was tailor made for Apollo 13 the movie version – make believe the make-believe – and who could have been better to lead this fantasy ride than Guantanamo Hanks at his all-American popularity peak?

I can’t be the worst. What about that hotdog one?

Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) (SPOILERS) It would have been a merciful release, had the title card “ The End ”, flashing on screen a little before the ninety-minute mark, not been a false dawn. True, I would still have been unable to swab the bloody dildoes fight from my mind, but at least Everything Everywhere All at Once would have been short. Indeed, by the actual end I was put in mind of a line spoken by co-star James Wong in one of his most indelible roles: “ Now this really pisses me off to no end ”. Or to put it another way, Everything Everywhere All at Once rubbed me up the wrong which way quite a lot of most of the time.

We’ve got the best ball and chain in the world. Your ass.

Wedlock (1991) (SPOILERS) The futuristic prison movie seemed possessed of a particular cachet around this time, quite possibly sparked by the grisly possibilities of hi-tech disincentives to escape. On that front, HBO TV movie Wedlock more than delivers its FX money shot. Elsewhere, it’s less sure of itself, rather fumbling when it exchanges prison tropes for fugitives-on-the-run ones.

Drank the red. Good for you.

Morbius (2022) (SPOILERS) Generic isn’t necessarily a slur. Not if, by implication, it’s suggestive of the kind of movie made twenty years ago, when the alternative is the kind of super-woke content Disney currently prioritises. Unfortunately, after a reasonable first hour, Morbius descends so resignedly into such unmoderated formula that you’re left with a too-clear image of Sony’s Spider-Verse when it lacks a larger-than-life performer (Tom Hardy, for example) at the centre of any given vehicle.

So, you’re telling me that NASA is going to kill the President of the United States with an earthquake?

Conspiracy Theory (1997) (SPOILERS) Mel Gibson’s official rehabilitation occurred with the announcement of 2016’s Oscar nominations, when Hacksaw Ridge garnered six nods, including Mel as director. Obviously, many refuse to be persuaded that there’s any legitimate atonement for the things someone says. They probably weren’t even convinced by Mel’s appearance in Daddy’s Home 2 , an act of abject obeisance if ever there was one. In other circles, though, Gibbo, or Mad Mel, is venerated as a saviour unsullied by the depraved Hollywood machine, one of the brave few who would not allow them to take his freedom. Or at least, his values. Of course, that’s frequently based on alleged comments he made, ones it’s highly likely he didn’t. But doesn’t that rather appeal to the premise of his 23-year-old star vehicle Conspiracy Theory , in which “ A good conspiracy theory is an unproveable one ”?

He’ll regret it to his dying day, if ever he lives that long.

The Quiet Man (1952) (SPOILERS) The John Wayne & John Ford film for those who don’t like John Wayne & John Ford films? The Quiet Man takes its cues from Ford’s earlier How Green Was My Valley in terms of, well less Anglophile and Hibernophile and Cambrophile nostalgia respectively for past times, climes and heritage, as Wayne’s pugilist returns to his family seat and stirs up a hot bed of emotions, not least with Maureen O’Hara’s red-headed hothead. The result is a very likeable movie, for all its inculcated Oirishness and studied eccentricity.

He doesn’t want to lead you. He just wants you to follow.

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022) (SPOILERS) The general failing of the prequel concept is a fairly self-evident one; it’s spurred by the desire to cash in, rather than to tell a story. This is why so few prequels, in any form, are worth the viewer/reader/listener’s time, in and of themselves. At best, they tend to be something of a well-rehearsed fait accompli. In the movie medium, even when there is material that withstands closer inspection (the Star Wars prequels; The Hobbit , if you like), the execution ends up botched. With Fantastic Beasts , there was never a whiff of such lofty purpose, and each subsequent sequel to the first prequel has succeeded only in drawing attention to its prosaic function: keeping franchise flag flying, even at half-mast. Hence Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore , belatedly arriving after twice the envisaged gap between instalments and course-correcting none of the problems present in The Crimes of Grindelwald .

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.