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The Mummy

By Vladimir Zelevinsky

Written and directed by Stephen Sommers

With Brendan Frasier, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Arnold Vosloo.

A one-line review, for those of you who’re in a hurry: The Mummy is Indiana Jones IV.

To elaborate, it’s two hours of elaborately cinematic fun, the likes of which Hollywood should be able to stamp out at least monthly, but which, in all reality, come once a year if we’re lucky (there was nothing remotely as engaging in 1998). The trailer makes this movie look unbelievably stupid; and--guess what--it is unbelievably stupid. The reason why it works is that The Mummy is designed this way: as breathlessly exciting mindless entertainment, both warmly affectionate to its roots as a good old monster movie and adding a transparent layer of self-referential postmodernist irony. I don’t think I noticed a single idea in this movie; but this really isn’t a problem at all. In terms of pure entertainment value, this is one of the best films of the year so far: a touch less so than The Matrix but by a similar amount surpassing The Phantom Menace. I don’t think I’ll remember much of The Mummy even a week from now; but while it lasted, I couldn’t think about anything else but what was unfolding on the screen.

The story, which is neatly summarized during the movie, is: “rescue the damsel in distress, kill the bad guy, save the world”--and that’s it, really, with no other aim in sight than to make the audience alternately squirming with suspense and giddy with excitement.

The bad guy in question is the ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), who was cursed and buried alive three thousands years ago. Now he’s about to awaken, armed with all ten plagues, and let loose upon the unsuspecting world. The damsel in distress is the lovely Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), an archeologist/librarian from Cairo, who has the misfortune to look very much like Imhotep’s long-dead sweetheart. The hero who has to save the world is Rick O’Connel (Brendan Fraser), a soldier of fortune down on his luck. Joined by Evelyn’s good-for-nothing brother Jonathan (John Hannah, from Sliding Doors and Four Weddings and a Funeral), they travel to the Hamunaptra --the ancient city of dead. There, they will encounter rival expeditions, swarms of deadly bugs, ancient religious cults, ingenious booby traps, sandstorms, mass riots, walking undead, and more fighting skeletons than in any film this side of The Army of Darkness.

My most profound thanks to writer/director Stephen Sommers. In these days of Cuisinart film editing, he clearly knows how to stage an action scene: no messy chopped-up closeups here, no headache-inducing rapid-fire editing, no dark chunks of unidentifiable stuff hurtling across the screen. Sommers films the action in carefully composed widescreen shots, where it’s always perfectly clear what’s going on. He’s aided, of course, by some of the best-integrated special effects--witness, for example, the elaborate opening tracking CG shot of ancient Egypt.

What also works, and does so wonderfully, is the acting. Brendan Fraser, finally, uses both his charisma and considerable acting talent to complement each other, playing the dashing but not too bright adventurer with a constant twinkle in his eye and a hint of a smile--even while wrestling with half a dozen decaying corpses. Rachel Weiz, who, so far, was consistently the worst thing about every movie I’ve seen her in, is a revelation: she seems to be channeling some old silent-movie actress, all curls and pouting lips and wide-opened eyes, and I can’t think of a performance which would better complement this kind of a movie.

Some of the action is, admittedly, overly violent: not because much violence is ever shown on screen (all of it is presented either off-screen, or in a shadowy silhouette, or by implication, or after a fade to black)--but because of these implications and rather vivid sound effects (superbly edited) there’s very little doubt what is actually going on. I woudn’t have objected if fewer bad guys met various gruesome fates--but, on the other hand, I probably wouldn’t have felt as much nerve-wracking suspense as permeates The Mummy.

But the main achievement is not the well-shot action; it’s the film’s tone, which walks a narrow line between being a classical adventure/horror story, and a winkingly ironic commentary on one. This is the movie which features solemn readings of nonsensical spells from not one but two Ancient Volumes of Forbidden Lore, which has a camel race, which prints the closing credits in the absurdly stylized hieroglyph-like font, and which is never afraid to be simply exciting, or simply funny, or frequently both.

There’s one scene where the desert landscape is foreboding, the ancient tomb ruins are towering over the characters, when Evelyn reads in husky voice something that is certain to be a horrific dark spell, and when she’s done, a howling croaking blast of wind sweeps across the desert. When this happens, O’Connel looks around with a perfectly deadpan air and nonchalantly remarks: “That happens a lot around here, doesn’t it?”, and the audience howls with laughter.