“The Mummy Returns” in a very big way. Considerably more elaborate and spectacular in its special effects than was the film that brought Universal’s musty corpse back to life two years ago, this follow-up still lacks the wit and elan that would have made this burgeoning series more than a popcorn-picture franchise. But the widescreen here virtually bursts with visual goodies, and writer-director Stephen Sommers scarcely allows the actors, or the audience, a moment to take a breath during the nonstop action of the final hour. The original unearthed more than $414 million worldwide, and there is no reason this one shouldn’t follow suit.
With all the key personnel intact from the initial installment, the new film similarly operates most successfully on a 12-year-old, comicbook-appeal level. Once again, the dialogue is hokey, every crisis is too easily dealt with and the whole enterprise lacks the flair and sophistication that made “Raiders of the Lost Ark” just as appealing to adults as it was to kids.
Perhaps unequipped to eradicate these problems, Sommers has fixed on the alternative solution of minimizing them, essentially by filling the screen with so many dazzling sights and distracting incidents that one’s grownup self is eventually persuaded to step aside to allow the little kid inside — if it’s not too mummified — to have a good time.
Sommers & Co. must have felt liberated by the success of the first venture, for the visions of mythical antiquity they bring to often ridiculous but undeniably eye-catching life are vastly grander this time around. The hidden door/secret passageway/magic bracelet/don’t-open-this-box-if-you-know-what’s-good-for-you trappings are straight out of B movies. But the sheer spectacle of swarms of scorpions rising from the sand; mummy warriors marauding through the streets of London; a homemade dirigible puttering through deep ravines on its way to a gleaming golden pyramid in a hidden jungle; and an army, as big as the desert, of ancient warrior hounds descending over the dunes — all accomplished with extraordinary visual credibility — puts the film toward the high end of visual effects-driven experiences.
The plot, of course, is just a pretext to get the mummy and his minions alive and jumping again. It’s 1933, eight years after the action of the last picture. In the interim, Yank adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and Egyptologist Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) have married and produced a kid, Alex (Freddie Boath), who’s to the manner born in that, on his first foray into a shadowy Egyptian tomb, he emerges with a golden bracelet that everybody wants.
Once again, Rick and Evelyn must contend with the resurrected 3,000-year-old mummy Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), who emerges from his slumber in crusty condition only to once again assume superhuman strength. Reunited with his long-ago love, Anck-Su-Namun, reincarnated as Meela (Patricia Velasquez), Imhotep is determined to at last rule the world through control of the enormous army of the Scorpion King (World Wrestling Federation star the Rock), a fearsome warrior who has been waiting in limbo for 5,000 years to claim the total victory for which he sold his soul to Anubis. If the Scorpion King is allowed to reawaken, Imhotep will have quite a fight on his hands.
After this back-story is laid out by way of a furious (but conspicuously bloodless) battle in ancient Thebes, Rick, Evelyn and Alex are pursued to their London mansion by Imhotep’s earthly cronies, an exotic band led by Meela and Lock-Nah (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a turbaned sword twirler single-mindedly devoted to detaching Alex from the coveted gold bracelet; unless they prevent it, the baddies warn, the Scorpion King will arise from the dead in seven days, “starting a chain reaction that could start the next apocalypse.”
After a lot of boisterousness involving some flashy hand-to-hand combat, Evelyn’s ritual near-sacrifice in the bowels of the British Museum, a wild nocturnal chase on a double-decker bus and Alex’s kidnapping, the action returns to Egypt, where the Scorpion King’s imminent return has everybody in a dither.
From this point on, the “plot” is yanked this way and that in order to create virtually no downtime in the dizzying succession of action and fight scenes, whose number would have more than filled an entire 15-episode Republic serial. Rick, Evelyn, the latter’s brother Jonathan (John Hannah, back for more comic relief, in the broadest sense of the term) and the mysterious Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr, also returning), wise in the ways of the desert and its lore, hire a boatlike dirigible that carries them over the desert in search of Alex and his abductors.
In the course of the race to the legendary golden pyramid (which, of course, no man has ever seen and lived to tell of it), Imhotep sends a wall of water roaring through a gorge to engulf the dirigible; nasty pygmy mummies chase everyone through the underbrush of the forest surrounding the pyramid; Evelyn and Meela, in their ancient and reincarnated personas, get to enact not one but two beautifully choreographed dagger fights; Evelyn is killed (well, maybe); Rick must battle both Imhotep and the Scorpion King; and, best of all from a spectacle p.o.v., Ardeth Bay’s dramatically black-garbed soldiers face off in the desert against the terrifying canine army of Anubis.
Fans of the Rock probably will get more laughs than thrills out of the wrestler’s feature film debut, in which his head and torso have been grafted onto a giant scorpion’s body, a pretty silly sight to be sure. But at least he doesn’t have to deliver any dialogue, which is not Sommers’ strong suit. Fraser, looking slightly bulkier than he did in the original, remains ideally suited for this sort of lighthearted fun, although his character feels sidelined more than before in favor of the attention given to the even more numerous supporting players. Of the latter, Vosloo, Velasquez, Akinnuoye-Agbaje and Fehr take the most advantage of the opportunities, their dashing looks cutting striking figures against the exotic comicbook backdrops.
Pic’s strongest suit is its visual splendor, achieved through a virtually seamless melding of impressive sets, great locations (in Morocco, Egypt and Jordan), colorful costumes and first-rate CGI work by Industrial Light & Magic and visual effects supervised by John Berton. Alan Silvestri’s energetic score reps an improvement on Jerry Goldsmith’s laborious musical support for the first installment.