The Mummy (1999) movie review: evil dead

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You know that fourth Indiana Jones movie for which we’ve been waiting ten years? Well, here it is. From its wowser of an opening in ancient Egypt to the spectacular finale featuring an army of reanimated, bandage-dripping soldiers, The Mummy is a totally enthralling, nonstop thrill ride, the best popcorn flick in years, the purest fun I’ve had at the movies since I can’t remember when.

“Smashing day for the start of an adventure,” Jonathan Carnarvon (John Hannah) says, setting the pulpy tone of The Mummy right off the bat. It’s 1926, and a group of wannabe tomb raiders sets off from Cairo for the ruins of Hamunaptra, the fabled City of the Dead, “where the earliest pharaohs were said to have hidden the wealth of Egypt,” according to Evelyn Carnarvon (Rachel Weisz). She’s a librarian at the Museum of Antiquities, and her dream of being the next Howard Carter (note that a Lord Carnavon was with Carter when he discovered Tut’s tomb) will lead her, her twit brother, and American soldier Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser, from Gods and Monsters) into a world of dark magic, ancient maps, cool artifacts, and constant peril.

With a ragtag team of hangers-on and a rival group of Americans (all ripe for the slow picking-off by the unimaginable horrors ahead) on their heels, they of course find the city of yore where they — oops! — accidentally awaken Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), high priest of Osiris. For his crime of nooky with the pharaoh’s mistress, Imhotep was mummified alive 3000 years earlier, this horrible fate leaving him undead for eternity. Enter members of an ancient secret society, the descendants of the pharaoh’s bodyguards who are sworn to protect Imhotep’s mummy — they were supposed to prevent it from being reanimated, lest Imhotep (aka “bringer of death”) become an “unholy flesh eater with the strength of ages.” Now they tell us. ‘Course, the curse on Imhotep’s sarcophagus did warn that “death will come on swift wings” to whomever opens the thing.

If you’re looking for a thematic remake of the 1932 classic, you won’t find it here. There’s none of the pathos of Boris Karloff’s mummy in our bad guy — Imhotep is a killing machine, a millennia-old, seemingly unstoppable Terminator. But so what? The Mummy is so diverting because it doesn’t take anything about itself too seriously. We all know mummies don’t exist, writer/director Stephen Sommers seems to be telling us, but let’s pretend just for fun. The film’s gruesomeness is mostly off-camera and punctuated by laughs, and Sommers makes sure The Mummy revels in its winking movieness. The golden glow that pervades the film — gorgeous desert sunsets, gilded temples, warm torchlight — isn’t just symbolic of a longing for a J. Peterman fantasy world of biplanes, khakis, and worn leather satchels hiding priceless historical treasures; it’s also indicative of a nostalgia for the great rollicking movies of the past, not just the obvious Raiders of the Lost Ark but also classic adventures like Lawrence of Arabia. Evelyn can crack wise in the face of impending doom and Rick can tell us, at his darkest hour, when all seems lost, that it’s up to him and his chums to “rescue the damsel in distress, kill the bad guy, and save the world,” because they’re in on the joke, too. It’s just a movie, they’re saying, but come along for the ride — it’ll be a good one.

The Mummy‘s special effects are quite literally eye-popping — Imhotep goes about rebuilding his half-decomposed body by borrowing parts from hapless mortals. The swarms of flesh-eating scarabs in particular are cool-gross, and Imhotep’s preferred method of transportation — as a whirlwind of sand — is brilliantly done. But the FX all serve the story and the characters, which is as it should be. And as self-aware as the characters are, they’re still compelling, thanks to note-perfect performances. Evelyn and Rick are basically Indiana Jones split down the middle — she’s the brains, he’s the brawn. Weisz is delightful as the clumsy, bubbly librarian, and Fraser is utterly charming (and so cute!) as the square-jawed adventurer. But stealing every scene he’s in is Oded Fehr as the leader of the secret society watching over Imhotep — with his strong, beautiful face, flowing black robes, fount of mystical knowledge, and penchant for self-sacrifice, he’s like a sexy Obi-Wan Kenobi. Fehr is an actor to keep an eye on.

And the summer movie season is off with a bang!

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