The Mummy is so chock-full of visual effects that you almost expect to see Industrial Light & Magic in the cast list. But there's no doubt that the appeal of Universal's slick resurrection of the studio's classic franchise (kicked off by 1932's Boris Karloff starrer and revived with Britain's Hammer Films from '59 to '72) rests on the broad shoulders of Brendan Fraser. As The Mummy attempts to emulate the old-fashioned popcorn-movie style of Raiders of the Lost Ark (and suffers badly by comparison), it's fair to say that Fraser possesses more than a little of Harrison Ford's tough-guy physicality and deadpan wit (though Ford's smirk cuts deeper). Fraser is coming off the double whammy of mainstream (George of the Jungle) and art-house (Gods and Monsters) success, and as this version of The Mummy emulates the adventure tale Gunga Din, even a comparison to Cary Grant isn't farfetched. It's quite possible that Grant would have been better paired with Fraser's refreshingly cerebral Brit co-star Rachel Weisz, who we meet at the top of a ladder in an antiquities museum library full of dusty old books. Once the glasses are discarded and her hair comes down, gasp, there's a sexy side to this scholar--Bringing Up Baby, anyone?
This lavish remake emphasizes laughs as opposed to chills; the film wouldn't scare a five-year-old, and the creepiest (and coolest) moments are provided by the swarms of scarabs--nasty beetles--that literally get under one's skin. The Mummy's prologue is set in Thebes, circa 1290 B.C., where the Pharaoh's priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) is secretly messing around with his master's sexy consort Anck Su Namun. (In her fishnet garb, Patricia Velasquez provides by far the film's sexiest moments.) Upon the affair's discovery, Anck Su Namun kills herself, and Imhotep is mummified alive (with a bunch of those scarabs) in a sarcophagus in Hamunaptra, the City of the Dead. Flashing ahead to the 1920s, American adventurer Rick O'Connell (Fraser) is saved from hanging in Cairo by librarian Evelyn (Weisz), who, with her skittish, wisecracking brother Jonathan (John Hannah), seeks to discover the treasures--scientific and material--of Hamunaptra. O'Connell is said to know the city's location, so they trek across the Egyptian desert, shadowed by some greedy Americans also looking for the buried booty. Both groups are really in for it when Imhotep is rudely awakened, unleashing his ancient curse. The angry mummy gradually regains his strength by absorbing the body parts of his victims, and soon he's spewing locusts, creating sandstorms, and falling for Evelyn, who reminds him of his long-lost love. Too bad bald-headed Imhotep is such a hokey goofball; with a messy crop of ugly tissue hanging off his 3,000-year-old bones, he awkwardly clunks around like the ancient brother of Robert Patrick's cyborg in Terminator 2.
Sumptuous visual effects and the efforts of cinematographer Adrian Biddle give the desert (shot in Morocco) a rich, golden-hued patina, that, along with production designer Allan Cameron's period detail, adds up to a genuinely 'epic'-looking picture. The Mummy's action scenes--especially those that pit humans against humans, as opposed to CGI foes--are adroitly staged, and they show off Fraser's rugged hero persona to best effect. A spirited highlight finds Fraser & Co. battling Imhotep-loyal warriors led by Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr) on a riverboat awash in flames. It's The Mummy's attempts at comedy and romance that fall flat. I wish there was more romantic tension between Fraser and Weisz--how can a film succeed as a romantic adventure when you're not anxiously waiting for the leads to kiss? While Fraser's right at home in this swashbuckling, cartoonish world, it doesn't play to Weisz's refined sensibilities, though it's difficult to fault a film which allows its heroine to proudly bellow 'I am a librarian!' in the face of those who value their wallets over science. The fine actor John Hannah (Sliding Doors) barely escapes career embarrassment in his unflattering role, one of many victims in a heavily caricatured supporting cast. (Several critics have attacked the film's portrayal of Arabs.) An unlimited effects budget does not automatically guarantee spine-tingling horror, and by misguidedly emphasizing spoof over suspense, Sommers proves that, 67 years later, all the new technology in the world doesn't top one Boris Karloff.