All dressed up and no place to go

Despite his studly physique, Brendan Fraser isn't enough of an action hero to keep "The Mummy" from unraveling.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published May 7, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Of all the horror franchises of the 1930s and '40s,
the "Mummy" films, which mostly featured Lon Chaney Jr.
swaddled in Army-surplus bandages and lurching after some
screaming young woman, probably have the worst reputation. This was
never completely fair; Karl Freund's original 1932
"The Mummy" (Boris Karloff's only turn in the
gauze-wrapped role) is one of the most suspenseful and
atmospheric horror movies of the period, and the Hammer
Films 1959 remake starring Christopher Lee is also luridly
effective. But the undead Egyptian priest, I guess, seemed
to lack the philosophical and/or erotic possibilities of the
Frankenstein and Dracula legends. Despite our info-glutted
society's growing fascination with the mystical traditions of ancient cultures,
contemporary filmmakers have let the mummies sleep.

So ends our history lesson for this week. Mummy-fanciers (if
there are any of you), be warned: Stephen Sommers'
"The Mummy" borrows almost nothing from the great,
neglected, dude-looks-like-a-burn-victim tradition except
its title and a cheesola opening sequence that represents
ancient Egypt as an enormous Vegas hotel, complete with
showgirls in fishnet jumpsuits and gold lami body paint.
What we've really got here is a tame screwball
adventure dressed up with some desert scenery and some awful
computer graphics. (Somehow there's cosmic justice in
the fact that movie makers can now spend the gross national
product of Romania on special effects and still wind up with
something that looks like a teenager's Web page.) If
you're 11 years old and not hip enough for "The
or if "Romancing the Stone" was your favorite movie
of all time, you might make a satisfying multiplex afternoon
out of "The Mummy." On the other hand, if you prefer movies
where it seems like somebody involved might have given a
crap, skip it.

As Rick O'Connell, the jazz-age Yank adventurer who
leads an expedition to the forbidden city of Hamunaptra that
accidentally unleashes "an unholy flesh eater with the power
of the ages," Brendan Fraser is an engaging, even endearing
presence. But despite his studly physique, Fraser
doesn't make a commanding centerpiece for an action
film. While he shares something of the aw-shucks Middle
America demeanor of James Stewart or Harrison Ford, both
can have an intensity, a neediness, that Fraser lacks.
Something in his puppy eyes tells you he just doesn't
take being hanged, or devoured by legions of the undead, all
that seriously. English actress Rachel Weisz, who plays
Evelyn, the spunky librarian who briefly pretends to resist
Rick's charms, is the same kind of cheerful,
low-wattage performer. With brown ringlets framing her
pre-Raphaelite face, Weisz is darn cute without seeming the
least bit sexual. Sommers wisely keeps their relationship
PG-chaste; it's hard to imagine this couple doing
anything heavier than playing Twister all night before
collapsing into a giggling dog pile.

Actually, the opening scenes of "The Mummy" are far more
enjoyable than the rest of the movie, what with the
Hefneresque display of ancient Theban babeage, a bunch of
rebellious priests being mummified alive and "Egyptian"
dialogue subtitled in a lovely serif font. For messing with
the Pharaoh's concubine, Prince Imhotep (Arnold
Vosloo, looking like the runner-up in a Yul Brynner
look-alike contest) not only gets mummified alive, he has his
tongue cut out first and then gets buried with a squirming
truckload of flesh-eating scarabs. Yum! "I've never
seen a mummy look like this before," gasps Evelyn when her
gang opens his fingernail-scarred sarcophagus several
thousand years later. "He's still ... he's
still juicy," chimes in Rick.

But such moments of genuine gross-out humor are few. Mostly
we witness a splashy but unmemorable array of fight scenes
in pseudo-exotic locations (like the sex and the horror, the
violence in "The Mummy" is strictly lite). First, French
Foreign Legion vet Rick, along with Evelyn and her simpering
brother Jonathan (John Hannah), must battle mysterious
bandits and rival explorers on riverboats, in desert camps
and through the caverns of the buried city. Then the
completely unterrifying Imhotep returns to assimilate
everyone's "organs and fluids," and so conquer the
earth. (Don't ask.) He brings with him the 10
biblical plagues of Egypt, which all appear to involve blobs
of unidentifiable glop exploding on a matte painting of
Cairo. I've seen some lame-o movie monsters in my
time, but this guy is among the dumbest. When Evelyn reads
the fateful inscription out of her newfound copy of the Book
of the Dead, the hideous creature that is awakened looks
something like a baked brie sculpture (badly overcooked) and
something like a mangy, earless Abyssinian cat.

"The Mummy" should benefit from being the first major release of
blockbuster season. The central couple is blandly cheerful,
Hannah is an able comedian, and the first few subterranean
scenes -- full of distant, cacophonous chattering and hordes
of rampaging scarabs -- build some creepy atmosphere. But
for all its color and scenery, this is a pallid production
without an ounce of real spirit or invention, and the more
it throws expensive animation at you, the cheaper it looks
(the deus ex machina Evelyn finally conjures up to defeat
Imhotep is a shameful dud). Sommers' formula script
even seems to have absorbed the racial attitudes of its
'20s setting -- there are jokes presenting Arabs as
dirty and conniving, and Beni (Kevin O'Connor), a
cowardly, greedy sidekick character, reads strongly as
Jewish. And by the time a few guys wrapped in bandages
finally shuffle in to lend the proceedings some sense of
dignity and propriety, the damn thing is over.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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