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By Tim Merrill | May 20, 2001

The dialogue (written by Sommers himself) is also shorthand, hurried exposition punctuated by quips, asides and blunt declarations like “Who are these guys?” and “This is not good!” and “Whoa.” One specific line, from Brendan Fraser, does resonate: “I don’t have time for subtle.” That sounds like the perfect action-porn motto, dubious grammar and all.
Not that one would expect subtlety from a massive battle sequence. This movie’s opening set-to appears to involve more swarming soldiers than have ever been marshaled for any movie in history, about 100,000 live extras and CGI creatures having at it in the Moroccan desert. “Lawrence,” Spartacus, “Braveheart,” Gladiator — those losers are history!
And your eyes take it all in, and then start to cross from the strain, from the spectacular frivolity. Nothing is at stake here; there is no object except to blast your face off and make you say “Whoa.” The only suspense in the film’s exhausting first fifteen minutes is whether the words ‘The Mummy Returns‘ are ever actually going to appear onscreen – is it all an extended prologue? It turns out no opening title ever does show up. Maybe the filmmakers figured that three words of text would unduly tax the intellects of the Rock-heads in the crowd. (Yes, The Rock. The arch-browed WWF super-rassler is only onscreen for the opening battle, but rest assured: next summer, “The Scorpion King Returns” in his very own spinoff. However, this may preclude him from duty in “The Mummy Returns Again” – we’ll find out come May 2003).
So the battle stops and then the real story seems to kick in, the bits involving The Mummy Himself. But not even the faintest effort is made for any of what follows to actually scare us. As the title ghoul, called Im-Ho-Tep, elegant Arnold Vosloo is not threatening in the least; with his perpetual half-smile and honeyed voice, he seems a rather friendly chap.
But Mr. Ho-Tep is indeed a bad guy, and soon enough he lets some henchmen loose from an earthen jug, and an endless chase through the streets of London ensues between a double-decker bus and many scampering warrior mummies. Since the story is set in 1933, I was hoping the filmmakers might get super-postmodern and show the bus barreling past an old-time movie palace with ‘BORIS KARLOFF in THE MUMMY’ on the marquee. No such luck.
Half-assed nods to Titanic, The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon do abound, though. It shows how exponentially our speed is increasing along the pop-culture continuum that Matrix gags already seem so played-out; is there any actor who isn’t a gravity-defying martial artist these days? But Sommers just can’t resist the urge to make poor Fraser hang in midair for that key second during a high kick, or throw in a few of those little slow-down speed-up frissons.
One such showcase occurs during a scene – a flashback, if I’m not mistaken – in which the movie’s grand total of two female characters, played by Rachel Weisz and Patricia Velasquez, do this thing…oh yes, they fight. Wonderfully, magnificently. Toned, bronzed and clad only in a few tiny golden whatsits, they jab at each other with exotic types of knife thingies. Amid the punishment of sitting through this movie, what visual effects these two lovely young women display are the only images worth taking home with you.
The Weisz-Velasquez grudge match is only a warm-up, however. By the time the story lunges into Act III – or is it Act IV? – one climactic battle won’t do, not nearly. In the final half-hour, The Mummy Returns provides between four and five separate skirmishes happening all at once and frantically intercut. One of these dust-ups, the most expensive one by far, involves many thousands of marching, rotting, skeletal black dogs attired like old King Tut – but very easily dispatched, of course.
Given that this is a relentlessly violent action flick, death is never much of a threat. None of our heroes is ever in true jeopardy, so the organic excitement level is low throughout. When one of the climactic fights results in Miss Weisz being stabbed in the chest and “killed,” the moment is tossed off, so thuddingly inconsequential that it barely raises a yawn. And sure enough, ten minutes later Weisz strolls into the fray again, rosy-cheeked and ready to rumble.
At that juncture — the Really Big Finish — the a*s that requires kicking belongs to a giant angry scorpion creature. But not just any giant angry scorpion creature: this one comes furnished with the digitized torso and head of the Rock. Said head looks comically, outrageously phony, yet also familiar. I got to thinking: “Didn’t I just see this face in that Final Fantasy trailer before the movie? Isn’t that movie based on a videogame? Am I in a videogame right now? And if I dash out for a quick pee, will I miss anything – maybe an immense Hulk Hogan-headed potato bug rolling in to wipe out the Scorpion Rock once and for all? Or a three-way cage match, with King Kong Bundy joining in just for laughs? (Remember King Kong Bundy, that bald blubbery old-school wrestler? They don’t grow ’em like him anymore. But in the hands of Industrial Light + Magic, he could sport the body of King Kong and the head of Ted Bundy – anything is possible with CGI, right?)
Then it ends. After two hours of the Vivendi Universal marketing department’s brain trust shamelessly having its way with you, after the Mummy and the Scorpion Rock have righteously kicked your a*s, Stephen Sommers’ credit comes up and off you go.
I suppose Sommers is very skilled at delivering what he does. He works hard and might even be a genuinely nice guy. However, his film’s pacing is so berserk, so utterly unmindful of sense or logic, that I imagine being trapped in the mind of a lunatic is not so different: there are freaky faces all around, the rules are always changing, and you just have to go along with it. Thinking about it too hard might drive you loony.
The frantic excess, the sheer demented decadence of this movie felt like a sort of madness to me, like punishment, like a two-hour whipping session in the bowels of Bedlam.
Blinding contempt for the audience seethes in every frame of The Mummy Returns. But if we as an audience – a vast and rabid audience, last weekend proved – are eagerly forking out for this treatment, then it’s clearly what we want and most definitely what we deserve. If this has become America’s idea of what a moviegoing experience should be, then maybe we’re not stupid like all them foreigners say we are. Maybe we’re actually just going a bit insane.
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