The Mummy (1999)

reviewed by
Edward Johnson-Ott

The Mummy (1999) Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo, Kevin J. O'Connor, Jonathan Hyde, Oded Fehr, Erick Avari, Stephen Dunham, Corey Johnson, Tuc Watkins, Omid Djalili, Aharon Ipale, Bernard Fox, Patricia Velasquez, Carl Chase, Mohammed Afifi. Screen story by Stephen Sommers, Lloyd Fonvielle, Kevin Jarre. Directed and written by Stephen Sommers. 124 minutes. Rated PG-13, 2 stars (out of five stars)

Review by Ed Johnson-Ott, NUVO Newsweekly Archive reviews at To receive reviews by e-mail at no charge, send subscription requests to

If you plan to see "The Mummy," there are a few things you should know. First, although loosely based on the well-known monster movie, it's not particularly scary. Instead of trying to frighten us, the filmmakers elected to make an "Indiana Jones" style adventure tale. Second, as an "Indiana Jones" derivative, it's not particularly involving. The story takes forever to get rolling and the convoluted plot serves mostly as an excuse to whip out loads of flashy special effects. Third, some of those effects are nifty, but few are convincing and too many are simply cheesy. Fourth, most of the jokes aren't funny. Apparently realizing their creation was structurally unsound, the filmmakers attempt to distract viewers with an endless stream of wisecracks from the principal characters. Wrapping things up (ahem), I suggest you skip "The Mummy."

The plot goes like this. In the mid-1920s, a plucky librarian (Rachel Weisz) reluctantly hires a ne'er-do-well adventurer (Brendan Fraser) to search for ruins of the ancient Egyptian city Hamunaptra, buried deep in the desert. They travel the Nile along with a competing team of cowboys bent on plundering the treasures of Hamunaptra. Once in the city, an unusually nasty mummy called Imhotep is accidentally raised from the dead by the cowpokes. The cranky 3,000-year-old immediately begins snagging body parts from those who released him, hoping to reconstitute his body so that he can unleash plagues on Egypt and bring his girlfriend back to life, presumably to rule the world at his side. And you thought Bill Clinton was a contemporary phenomenon.

"The Mummy" could have worked as a horror story, an adventure tale, or even a spoof, but writer-director Stephen Sommers ("Deep Rising") stumbles by haplessly trying to combine all three. While taking crib notes from the "Indiana Jones" movies, he should have studied more carefully, because he makes some fundamental errors here.

To succeed, films of this genre require a memorable villain. "The Mummy" starts with one, but undermines its effectiveness through bad writing. Even in the most dire circumstances, the lead characters continue trading one-liners as if they were playing flag football on a Sunday afternoon instead of facing death from a supernatural malevolent creature - - if they don't take the monster seriously, why should we?

Fraser and Weisz spend so much time swapping comedic insults that they come off like a road company version of Sam and Diane from "Cheers." They are lightweights; two crazy kids on a madcap escapade. Brendan Fraser is a talented actor, but the script cripples his character, casting him as an enterprising puppy dog instead of a real swashbuckler. As Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford tossed off his share of caustic remarks, but he clearly recognized his opponents as genuine menaces. Fraser's character seems more like a big kid on nitrous oxide during a marathon paintball tournament.

The impact of the storyline is also lessened by the way the characters deal with death. A large number of cast members die gruesomely, but their friends show virtually no emotional reaction. Only once in the entire movie does anyone pause to display a moment of regret that a friend has been killed.

After a while, my investment in the storyline disappeared completely and I just sat back and watched the special effects while waiting for the overlong film to end. "The Mummy" overflows with computer generated images of varying degrees of originality and quality. A prologue in ancient Egypt shows a lavish rendering of Hamunaptra in its prime, but the backgrounds are chintzy matte paintings and the computer renderings have that overly creamy look, similar to the CGI films shown in motion simulator rides.

Later, flesh-eating bugs create some minor scares, although they too have the same cut-rate CGI appearance. Images of faces mystically appearing in sandstorms are more effective and shots of freshly revived mummies, while reminiscent of the skeletal version of the "Terminator," are nicely rendered. But effects do not a movie make and all the flashy imagery in "The Mummy" can't compensate for its soulless feel.

The few scenes I enjoyed featured Bernard Fox, Dr. Bombay from the old "Bewitched" TV series, as a dotty soldier of fortune. I had no idea the veteran actor was still alive and his blustery performance was a pleasure. In just a few minutes of screen time, he showed more personality than the rest of the cast combined.

In his review of "The Mummy," Roger Ebert gave the film three out of four stars, acknowledging that it was trash, but arguing that it was enjoyable trash. I understand the sentiment, but his choice surprises me. If I'm in the mood for a so-bad-that-it's-good movie, I'll seek out something memorably awful, like "Roadhouse" or "Showgirls." "The Mummy" isn't bad enough to make my guilty pleasure list. It's merely one more overblown exercise in big budget lameness.

 1999 Ed Johnson-Ott

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