“I don’t believe in fairy tales and hokum,” the heroine of “The Mummy” exclaims a short way into the proceedings. If not, then she most certainly would not believe — or like — the very movie she’s in, as Universal’s attempt to find gold by bringing to new life one of the mustier items in its vaults is pure hokum and scarcely of the first order. This touring company “Indiana Jones” tries to have it both ways, sending up the adventure genre for laughs while also going for some mild shocks, but the sand slips through its fingers on both counts. The eye-catching ad campaign, Brendan Fraser’s name and an abundance of effects should generate some lively opening frame business, but as soon as “Star Wars” arrives, it’ll be back to the sarcophagus for this one.
Stephen Sommers’ $80 million extravaganza bears almost no relation to Karl Freund’s 1932 Boris Karloff starrer or to Terence Fisher’s 1959 Hammer film of the same name (which toplined Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee), sharing with them only the title, the idea of reviving an ancient Egyptian mummy after thousands of years and the predictable notion that you shouldn’t mess with antiquity if explicit warnings of dire consequences are printed right on the box — which in this case they are.
Seven-minute prologue by no means lacks for action and melodramatic incident. In resplendent Thebes in 1290 B.C., Pharaoh’s mistress and her lover, trusted priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), assassinate the Pharaoh, whereupon she kills herself and he, along with his cohorts, suffers the proverbial fate worse than death — he’s mummified alive. Imhotep is buried deep in well-fortified Hamunaptra near a vast repository of pharaonic treasures; should Imhotep ever be liberated, the prophecy goes, his malevolent power will unleash 10 plagues upon Egypt.
Story proper is set in the mid-1920s, when Egyptology was all the rage. Devil-may-care Yank soldier-explorer Rick O’Connell (Fraser) has already been to Hamunaptra in battle, but he’s about to be hanged in Cairo for his general meddlesomeness when he’s rescued from the noose by the attractive young Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), a bumbling librarian from the Museum of Antiquities who, evidently for want of better company, pals around with her maladroit brother Jonathan (John Hannah).
Joined by the greedy prison warden, they all set out down the Nile for the legendary burial site, whose location only Rick knows. But they have competition from some gung-ho American cowboy fortune hunters, and adversaries in the form of some fierce, black-garbed natives whose ancestors have been watching the site since before Moses’ day to make sure that Imhotep stays put.
But once all the Yanks and Brits turn up, it’s a safe bet that the old boy won’t remain cooped up for much longer. And this being the age of CGI, one can be assured that the mummy will assume numerous forms. Upon first seeing light of day, he’s a crusty old skeleton with an unusual amount of tissue left on him for a 3,000-year-old and a way of roaring at everyone that puts him in the same family with the stars of the “Alien” and “Jurassic Park” pictures. As he dispatches victims, he acquires what he needs from them — eyes, a tongue, teeth, more skin and so on, until he’s entirely restored and all but invulnerable; like a vampire, Imhotep has his vulnerabilities — he’s scared of cats — but this bit is introduced only to be immediately forgotten.
Also threatening any interloper at Hamunaptra are some large ancient bugs that haven’t eaten in centuries and have a way of getting under people’s skin. Imhotep doesn’t hesitate to deliver on the promised plagues — waves of insects, a firestorm and a solar eclipse are just his initial offerings — but fortunately, Rick is good with guns and a sword, and the Brits come through in a pinch, so the good guys have a fighting chance after all.
Unfortunately, nearly every element in Sommers’ by-the-numbers screenplay feels concocted merely to provide the excuse for another effect, moment of imperilment or miraculous rescue. Any number of scenes has the clutzy but brainy Evelyn rapidly translating ancient Egyptian in order to figure out a solution to something, and various items, such as keys, have a way of turning up whenever needed. Plot developments here stem strictly from convenience, not from conviction or logic, and pic fails to deliver any genuine sense of spirit or fun.
The stabs at comedy are lame, and Sommers can’t even come up with any amusing quips for Fraser and company to toss off as they handle crises with aplomb; dialogue in general is very feeble. At the same time, scary moments are the cheating kind, with mummies and such suddenly popping up from out of frame, and aren’t scary anyway. Pic is loaded with action and incident, but generates zero suspense or surprise.
Thesps have been directed to broad, undisciplined performances. Fraser is physically and temperamentally ideal for this sort of swashbuckling leading role, but he, like the film itself, never quite finds the proper seriocomic pitch. Buffoonery hardly seems like Weisz’s natural domain, as the actress strains for comic effects that she can’t achieve, while Hannah is markedly over the top.
Special effects are numerous and accomplished, and, while the mummy look itself is something new, and a few other shots are nifty — the computer-created vistas of ancient Egypt’s heyday and the marching, sword-clanging mummy soldiers toward the end look sharp — most of the effects have a rather familiar appearance. Shot on Moroccan locations and London interiors, pic has been attractively bathed in golden hues by lenser Adrian Biddle, and tech credits in general are lavish. Jerry Goldsmith’s heavy, ever-present score has a deadening effect on the action, however, and has to rate as one of the worst of his long and distinguished career.