Stephen Sommers’ big noisy new movie deserves credit for truth in advertising—the Mummy does return, in all his ILMish glory. Imhotep first comes roaring on screen as the craggy, moth-eaten-looking fellow he was in The Mummy, his bandages hanging off his not-quite-existent limbs in gruesome tatters, his teeth glaringly visible through the holes in his skull. Eventually, as in the first film, Imhotep comes into his full and imposing bodily form (played by Arnold Vosloo), again roaring in ancient Arabic, again looking to revive his 3000-year-old lover Anck-Su-Namun (Sandra Bernhard’s fabulous ex, Patricia Velasquez), and again pestered by brash adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his sidekicks—his Egyptologist wife Evie (Rachel Weisz), her irresponsible brother Jonathan (John Hanna), and their wise desert warrior-friend Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr).
As even this brief rundown makes plain, The Mummy Returns is all about rehashing and repeating. And just about everyone’s back for a second go, from writer-director Steven Sommers (and his producers, cinematographer, editor, and designers), to Rick and company to Pharaoh’s dead daughter Anck-Su-Namun, reincarnated in this film’s present day, 1933, as an archivist named Meela, but hellbent on bringing back her boyfriend, and so, her long-lost nefarious self. But then, that’s what mummies do, isn’t it? They resurrect.
Granted, the impulse to repeat is understandable, given the unexpected and tremendous success of the first film, a punchy old-school Hollywood B-movie dressed up as a hip, wise-cracky action-comedy. Even when re-viewed, The Mummy is corny good fun, standing Boris Karloff on his wrapped-too-tight head and reanimating the musty old mummy-stuck-in-a-pyramid story with witty FX and smarty-pants dialogue, not to mention Brendan Fraser’s genially self-aware performance as Indiana Jones Lite. Arriving in theaters with relatively little fanfare, it made an unexpectedly whopping profit ($414 million), and became an insta-franchise.
Regrettably, the sequel takes what must have seemed the safest route, delivering more of the same, lots of it. Everything in The Mummy Returns is bigger and more expensive, from its impressively enormous matte shots and massive armies composed of thousands of digitized soldiers, to its great swirling sand effects and outsized characters. The armies are larger, the fight scenes are longer, the digitized stunts are more complicated, and the mighty mummy face that materialized in the first film’s desert sand here appears in rushing floodwaters and black billowy smoke—it’s not so scary as it was the first time, and not nearly as startling. Locations range from the Moroccan desert to London’s Tower Bridge, so folks (and creatures) do lots of traveling, their means limited to horses, trucks, trains, and a dirigible that’s piloted by Rick’s entrepreneurial buddy Izzy (Shaun Parkes), prescient proprietor of Magic Carpet Airways. And Rick and Evie’s romantic teasing is now solidified into an 8-year marriage, and their ardor is apparently boundless: every time they catch a minute, they’re murmuring and lip-locking, much to the embarrassment of their young son Alex (Freddie Boath).
Lamentably, the film’s biggest effect—The Rock’s (Dwayne Johnson) loudly publicized feature debut—is also the biggest disappointment. As the spectacularly doomed Scorpion King, The Rock is typically charismatic and beautiful to behold, but he’s only on screen for a few minutes, right at the beginning, and he doesn’t talk as much as he roars and grunts (which is too bad, considering his verbal talents, exploited so well by Vince McMahon). In the few minutes of pre-story set up, you see that the Scorpion King is an ancient warrior who sells his soul for an army of two-legged doggy-beasts, armed with spears and arrows and other implements of penetration. The SK wins a horrific and costly war, raises his fist in triumph, then whoosh!, he’s sucked away by the demon and stowed in a pyramid, to be dug up much later in the film.
That would be the film’s present day, 1933, which—wouldn’t you know it?—happens to be the dreaded Year of the Scorpion, just that time when he’s set to reappear. On their way to the Scorpion King’s 5000-year-old resting place (at the oasis of Ahm Shere), the humans must battle each other, the weather, and a battalion of ewokish mummy-pygmies, sputtering and swooping all through the jungle-like oasis. Alas, when the SK is dug up, he looks rather puny and ghastly. And it’s not just age that’s made him look so feeble—washed out, two dimensional, not like The Rock at all. It appears that the effects crew didn’t quite get the imaging correct, and the SK roars into life as an combination of digital Rock’s face and digital Scorpion body, the SK looks like he belongs in a videogame, not a $multi-bijillion Hollywood blockbuster. Fraser and Vosloo do their best to make you believe they’re in an ancient chamber with this bad boy, but he’s too obviously other-dimensional to be convincing.
Of the human organisms, the most welcome and least developed newbie is Lock Nah (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Oz‘s recently deceased and sorely missed Adebisi, here without his miraculously affixed wool cap). Assigned by Imhotep to babysit the kidnapped Alex, Lock Nah is in an awkward position, to put it mildly. His sparring with the kid is less comic than tedious (large black man vs. precocious white child, an exhausted trope if ever there was one). Moreover, their relationship is just one of the film’s schematically antagonistic pairings, designed to situate everyone in his or her own combat scene in the jumbled climax. Rick and Imhotep square off (they also have a three-way with the SK), as do Ardeth Bay’s vast army and the doggy-beasties, and Evie and Anck-Su-Namun. The film’s intercutting between these three fight-finales is more distracting than thrilling, however: it breaks up building tension in favor of, again, the film’s central concern, size.
The women’s relationship is perhaps the most intriguing one here, in part because of some nifty morphing images that make Evie look a lot like Anck-Su-Namun (these are not a little strange, because, of course, Weisz and Velasquez look not a bit similar). Such images descend on poor Evie’s fevered brain, in not-very-well-explained “dreams,” otherwise known as plot contrivances. The short version of the rationale for these visions (aside from the fact that Velasquez looks so stunning in her skanky ancient outfits) is that Evie has Nefertiti’s spirit in her, and so somehow has knowledge of Anck-Su-Namun back in the day, when the latter was married to her dad, Pharaoh. The ladies’ eventual present day showdown resembles an expensive, professionally choreographed catfight, and they display a rudimentary command of ancient Japanese martial arts (just how this translates to ancient Egyptian fighting techniques, taught to young women in royal houses, I’m not sure).
Both the flashbacks and the climactic final battle are designed to show off the girls’ well-toned physiques and occasional fancy weapons-moves (perhaps gesturing toward the girls-can-do-it-too! spirit that so energized Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or even Josie and the Pussycats, but with considerably less potency). But in the end, their confrontation is only foreplay for the men’s money shots. When Rick and Imhotep face off against the Scorpion King, well… the chests are a-heaving and the bodily fluids are a-flowing.