Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Universal's Three Modern Mummies

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2008 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched The Mummy, the 1999 version, written and directed by Stephen Sommers and owing a lot more to contemporary action films — particularly Raiders of the Lost Ark, Romancing the Stone and their sequelae — than to Universal’s earlier Mummy films (the 1932 Karl Freund/John Balderston/Boris Karloff classic and the 1940 film The Mummy’s Hand). It’s a quite modern combination of extraordinary special effects work, including the mummy’s morphing into and out of human form (nothing so simple as donning a long coat and a fez the way Karloff did in 1932!) and summoning other mummies to form an army (a scene clearly influenced by Ray Harryhausen’s famous army of skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts), being able literally to animate the sand, and summoning forth small armies of scarab beetles to devour alive anyone who got in his way; with pretty numb-skulled acting and plotting.

Arnold Vosloo as the Mummy — still called Imhotep but bearing little relation either to the historical Imhotep (the designer of the pyramids and the only person other than a Pharoah whom the ancient Egyptians deified) or the character Karloff played — was quite striking (and in his human form, if anything, he was sexier than the lead!); but foul-mouthed (in both senses of the word) Brendan Fraser and dorky Rachel Weisz could hardly match David Manners and the majorly underrated Zita Johann as the romantic leads. Not that the tones of the films are all that similar; whereas John Balderston’s script was a romantic fantasy with a few horrific elements, this one was an action-adventure film with horror (relatively mild horror, at least by today’s standards; there’s really not much blood-and-gore here, which was fine by both of us) and quite a lot of comedy — in that regard this film is closer to The Mummy’s Hand than the 1932 Mummy, even though the broad outline of the plot is closer to Balderston’s story and even a couple of his expository lines about the curse on Imhotep’s casket are heard in almost identical form.

The comedy isn’t all that funny, and Fraser’s performance is at its least convincing when he tries for a Clint Eastwood-esque toughness that doesn’t come naturally to him — and Adrian Boole’s cinematography is the past-is-brown look run riot (anyone seeing this film is going to assume that ancient Egyptians were gold-plated) — but nonetheless it’s a reasonably entertaining audience-pleaser even though the elements of the 1932 film that continue to make it great — its subtlety, its doomed romanticism, the pathos of Karloff’s performance and the genuinely conflicted acting of Johann, who really does look like she’s being torn apart psychologically between the English and Egyptian parts of her heritage, and between her previous incarnation as the princess (a plot element missing from the 1999 version, and sorely missed) and her current one — completely eluded Stephen Sommers and the others involved in the new one. — 10/7/02


Charles and I hung out in the bedroom and I ran him the tape I’d made the night before of the film The Mummy Returns, written and directed by Stephen Sommers as a sequel to his wildly successful 1999 remake of The Mummy. This was a regular commercial TV broadcast with a disclaimer that the film had been reformatted to fit the TV screen (apparently the great unwashed broadcast audience is still not considered worthy of letterboxing) and edited for content and to fill the time slot allotted — which made me wonder just how much more of it there could possibly have been in the theatrical version. (Then again I’m not entirely averse to content editing — I remember seeing Wes Craven’s original Nightmare on Elm Street on network TV and liking it, while also reflecting that had I seen the complete — and no doubt gorier — theatrical version I probably wouldn’t have liked it as much!)

The Mummy Returns is, if anything, even campier than the 1999 film to which it was a sequel — in which, even though Sommers very deliberately and campily played against the mood of doomed romanticism that made the 1932 Karl Freund/John Balderston version so appealing, there were still enough shards of Balderston’s plot left that the film had some emotional impact. This time Sommers’ script was structured as arbitrarily as a porn film, only with action set-pieces instead of sex scenes — and though the action scenes were quite vividly staged they did get tiresome after a while. The Mummy Returns is mindless fun, a real testament to the power of digital graphics — the film couldn’t have been made without digitalization and its capacity to realize all those shots Sommers so loves of rivers of animate beings (usually insects, humans or, in this film, a whole army of dog-faced people supposedly led by the dog-faced Egyptian god Anubis, who actually was just part of their pantheon but in this film takes on the role of Satan), sand melting into the shape of people or places and then melting away back into sand, the spectacular visions seen by the son of Brendan Fraser’s character when he puts on the scorpion bracelet created by the legendary Scorpion King, who 5,000 years before the main action of the film takes place attempted to conquer Egypt with the aid of Anubis’s dog-faced army.

The plot line of this film features so many villains, both supernatural and terrestrial, that it’s hard to keep track of who they are, who’s on who’s side or what they want, but it’s the sort of film where none of that matters anyway; and while Brendan Fraser gets one acting moment in which he shows a genuine talent for pathos (when he has to react to the death of his wife — the temporary death of his wife, this being a fantasy and thereby not subject to the normal rules of human existence), and for the most part he’s a bit more personable and restrained this time than he was in the previous Mummy film (in which his appalling antics — which director Sommers obviously thought were cute and funny — made me cast fond thoughts back to David Manners despite his almost terminal blandness as an actor), this certainly wasn’t going to win him any Academy Award nominations or even offers of better parts. I guess watching The Mummy Returns is like pigging out at McDonald’s; you know you’re not supposed to enjoy it, but in spire of yourself you do even though you want something more substantial the next time you go out! — 2/11/04


The movies Charles and I watched last night — we squeezed in two even when I wasn’t doing OperaShare downloads of obscure Puccini — were the new Universal Mummy series film, saddled with the awkward title The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and one of the Jack Benny TV show episodes offered by Critics’ Choice Video. (They put out at least five volumes of Benny episodes but their current catalog offers only the first three; the fourth contains an episode with Marilyn Monroe and, knowing how fiercely protective her heirs are of her legacy, I imagine they threatened legal action if Critics’ Choice maintained it in their catalog.)

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is not written and directed by Stephen Sommers, as the first two episodes in the series were; instead it’s directed by Rob Cohen from a script by Alfred Gough & Miles Millar (and the fact that a big-budget action-effects extravaganza like this was actually written by just two people is pretty amazing in and of itself!), and instead of Arnold Vosloo’s reincarnated Egyptian mummy Imhotep it features an entirely new villain — and a new setting, China. The new villain is Emperor Han, who reigned two years ago and (like the real Chinese Emperor Qin) attempted to unify the various provinces of China at sword-point if necessary. In a rather clunky prologue narrated by Freda Foh Shen in a voice that sounds like the narrator of one of those “audio-visual” movies shown in grade and high schools when I was a boy, it’s explained that Han lusted after a witch who promised him the secret of eternal life, only she had eyes for his military commander, General Ming (Russell Wong) instead. Learning this, Han tricked her into revealing the secret of eternal life, then killed both her and Ming — not realizing that she had tricked him and put a spell on him that made his face turn into stone and periodically burst into fire, then put itself out and become stone again.

When the emperor finally died, he was buried in a tomb with plenty of booby-traps to make sure no one could reach his sarcophagus, exhume his body and restart him on his quest for immortality — on the ground that if he got up and was able to revivify his army of terra-cotta soldiers, he would be unstoppable and would literally conquer the world. The main part of the movie is set in China in 1946, where an expedition including Alex O’Connell (Luke Ford), son of the adventure couple from the first film — Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Evelyn (Maria Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz and for my money actually a better, more appealing heroine, though the consensus view is quite different) — has discovered the emperor’s tomb and is busy negotiating the booby-traps (I had a hard time suspending disbelief to accept that all the traps were still in working order after 2,000 years, but an imdb.com “Trivia” contributor says the tomb is real and so are the traps — and that’s one reason why the Chinese are taking a lot longer to excavate it than they anticipated).

This being 1946, with the Chinese civil war still going (it would be three years more before the Communists definitively won), there’s a modern-day warlord called General Yang (Chau Sang Anthony Wong) who has decided that if he can dig up the emperor and bring back him and his terra-cotta army to life, he can conquer all China and then the world. Yang has the elders kidnapped and brought to the tomb site — aided by a treacherous British diplomat in league with him — and the emperor is indeed revived, while to go up against him all they have are a few of the O’Connells’ hangers-on and Alex’s girlfriend Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh), who it turns out is the daughter of the original witch (she’s immortal — and when a nonplussed Alex hears how old the girl he’s dating really is, he says, “I don’t mind older women”) and has a magic dagger on her person that’s the one weapon that can kill Han once he bathes in a pool inside Shangri-La that will make him (otherwise) immortal.

None of this really matters because, as with the last two modern-day Mummy movies (especially the second, The Mummy Returns), the “plot” is as pretextual as one in a porn movie: it exists merely to set up the action scenes — which are staged with a cool efficiency that makes them entertaining but not as exuberant or spectacular as they were in the earlier films. There’s nothing here as deliciously horrific as the waves of sand of the earlier films that metamorphosed into armies of insects sent into battle at Imhotep’s direction to menace the heroes — the closest is the big set-piece towards the end, in which Han’s revivified terra-cotta army does battle against another fighting force brought back from the dead, this time from Han’s former slaves who were buried in the foundations of the Great Wall of China after Han literally worked them to death in its construction (another detail that unctuous audio-visual narrator gave us in the prologue). This isn’t a great movie but it’s fun, it does what it set out to do — dazzle us with impeccably created digital imagery (there’s even a credit for “hair technical director,” Zack Weiler) — and it doesn’t last long enough to overstay its welcome: its official running time is 112 minutes but the last 10 minutes or so of that is the closing credit roll. — 12/23/08