The Mummy Returns
directed by Stephen Sommers
(Universal, 2001)

Sequel to 1999's The Mummy, The Mummy Returns embodies that familiar Hollywood phenomena of cashing in on a good thing by trying to up the ante with bigger, louder and more of the same. This is not entirely a bad thing, for this follow-up does offer plenty of dazzling visuals (to the point that the CGI becomes overwhelming) and edge-of-the-seat action sequences (a bit contrived in the sense that you know all the principal characters will survive), with its flaws compensated for by charismatic, appealing leading performers.

The movie opens with a backstory set in Thebes in 3067 BC, explaining that a powerful warlord, the Scorpion King (Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson), sold his soul to the god Anubis in return for eternal life for himself and his sorcerous legions lying beneath the desert sands. They lie waiting for the right combination of events (involving magical objects) to resurrect them so they can resume conquering the world. Also seeking reanimation is Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), the Scorpion King's erstwhile servant who is actually contending for his power. (Using Imhotep as a villain is a sort of sacrilege, for the appellation belonged to a real person from ancient Egypt's early 3rd dynasty, a formative period in which his brilliant cultural/scientific innovations caused his memory to be passed down to the ages. The Scorpion King also exemplifies historical distortion, Hollywood misrepresenting a real ruler from the archaic proto-dynastic period who remains little known in the archeological record.)

Cut to 1933, eight years after the events in The Mummy. We see all the mainstays of the original cast (besides Vosloo mentioned above) returning: amiable and intrepid adventurer Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser), now married to librarian/Egyptologist Evelyn (Rachel Weisz). They're now parents, raising an 8-year-old son Alex (new cast member Freddie Boath). When Alex impulsively tries on the (unbeknownst to him) dangerous but enticingly glittering golden bracelet of the Scorpion King (unearthed by his parents' expedition), he unleashes the forces that will lead to the revivifying of the eponymous mummy and cohorts to world-threatening effect. To help the protagonists prevent the resumption of the Scorpion King's apocalyptic conquests, more characters from the first film reappear: Evelyn's bumbling, unprincipled brother Jonathan (John Hannah) and Ardath Bay (Oded Fehr), leader of the Medjai Warriors who exist to guard against unwanted resurrections. There follows maniacally-paced chases, fights, hairbreadth escapes and more chases (replete with bloodless violence frequently done to CGI creatures), leading to the climax in the tried and true fashion of Indiana Jones and Raiders of the Lost Ark plus legions of similar predecessors (as opposed to the original Boris Karloff mummy). The Mummy Returns often quotes scenes from a number of other popular movies that have entered the current zeitgeist to amusing effect -- less amusing, the plethora of CGI special effects all too obviously unreal for all their cleverness in conceptual design.

The performers gamely go through their hectic paces with charisma and energy: Fraser with his affable charm; Weisz a lovely, intelligent amazon fierce in defending her man, her son and herself; Hannah, an adroit comic relief character; Boath refreshingly plucky far more often than cute; Fehr, handsome and doughty; Vosloo, an intriguing antagonist definitely underused; and The Rock, a worthy foe who also deserved far more screen time. The stunning Patricia Velasquez deserves mention for portraying Anck-Su-Namun, Imhotep's lover in the past who is reincarnated in the movie's present, the rival of Evelyn who was Nefertiri, the pharoah's daughter in her past life co-existing with Imhotep, et al. The only significant roles for folks of African descent in The Mummy Returns included a typical villainous henchman who gets killed and another comic relief character who assists the heroes (and survives) with his rather interesting if technologically implausible dirigible.

The worst aspect of The Mummy Returns exemplifies Hollywood's usual indifference to historical accuracy by ignoring the true African ethnicity of ancient Egyptian civilization. The most amusing qualities in this film manifest in the maximum use of kitsch and campy anachronisms in the production and costume design -- sheer fantasy with little basis in historical reality -- dazzling to look at but frequently absurd in a fun way best typified by in Evelyn's vision of herself in ancient times fighting Anck-Su-Namun. The scene shows both women clad in scanty costumes and wielding traditional Japanese martial arts weapons (small hand-held tridents) called sais which never existed in ancient Egypt! The Hong Kong-style acrobatics the stunt doubles expertly perform existed in those times in the form of entertainment but were not used for combat as shown in this sequence.

Despite the already mentioned flaws, The Mummy Returns does offer the type of derivative, goofy romp, full of chills and thrills, that one expects in escapist filmic fare. Loaded with visual dazzle (including some spectacular location scenery), expert cinematography, and graced with a lovely symphonic score by Alan Silvestri, this movie will cause Egyptologists to gnash their teeth while the rest of the public will have a reasonably good time.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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