I’m in a pulpy mood this week (like most weeks, but even moreso) so over the weekend my son and I rewatched The Mummy Returns. It’s a film that gets a lot of flack for some reason, but I loved it (and the first in the series). As I wrote in a mailing list thread back in 2001:
Put me in the love-it camp.
I think it may actually be the best pulp flick since Raiders, and probably the best PURE pulp flick ever.
It’s nowhere near as good a movie as Raiders, and it IS derivative as hell…but it’s so conscious and playful in its stealing that I can’t fault it. The writer/director clearly loves this sort of material and runs with it.
It’s also flawed in a lot of ways that have to be deliberate attempts to capture the shoddy (yet lovable) consistency of the pulps. For example, Frasier’s character now has a tattoo he’s apparently had since he was a kid. Did they put this tattoo somewhere where we couldn’t have seen it in the first film, like on his calf (to be seen when he’s pulling on his boots) or his shoulder (to be seen when his shirt rips in Doc Savage-style)? No. They put it on top of his wrist, which was plainly seen NOT to have a tattoo in the first film. Such an easy “flaw” was an easy one to address without problem, yet the tattoo is right there in all its glory, screaming INCONSISTENCY!
Or, rather, pulp-like inconsistency. The pulps are full of this sort of thing, as writers reached and dug for any new nugget to twist a story on. I’m a stickler for consistency — I’m the guy who watched carefully in each LETHAL WEAPON sequel to make sure Riggs’s tattoo (plot device in the first film) was still in place. It was. But this stuff is clear and playful homage to the source material, and I loved it.
The first two Mummy flicks were both obvious labors of love by Stephen Sommers, their writer/director. They were amazing showcases for CGI effects, but beyond that they had engaging stories full of pulp action, lots of comedy that did not descend into camp, and wonderful characters performed by perfectly cast actors. Brendan Fraser, as American soldier-of-fortune Rick O’Connell, was a perfect pulp hero, brash and cocky and capable. Rachel Weisz as Evelyn “Evy” O’Connell (né Carnahan) was the brilliant and (extraordinarily) sexy librarian who could hold her own in a scrap. Together they had incredible chemistry, crack comic timing, and the charm and natural repartee of a classic Hollywood couple (like Gable and Lombard, or Loy and Powell).
Throw in John Hannah as Evy’s sleazy but lovable brother, Arnold Vosloo as great villain Imhotep (whose ultimate fate, at the end of the second film, possesses pathos and tragedy), and a host of great supporting roles, and you have some flicks with great characters on the screen at all times. Even the kid who plays the O’Connell’s son, Alex, in the second film is brash and bratty without being annoying, a rare thing in a character like his.
The O’Connell’s adventures continued in a short-lived cartoon that was fairly good, and I remember it fondly as one of the few sources of pulp goodness I could share with my then five-year-old son.
He and I watched The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor last night. When I say it’s incredible, well, you’d darn well better believe that I am lying. Flat out full of shit. On a George W. Bush scale. Because it’s terrible.
Here’s what’s good about it:
- The idea to do a third Mummy film.
- The idea to use China as the setting, to do something different with the mummy idea this time around.
- The idea to cast Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh (always a great idea to cast either, an exceptional idea to have ’em both).
- Some cool creatures, like a really nicely done dragon, but especially the yeti. Because the yeti are the one point of absolute true awesome in the whole flick.
- The final battle is okay.
You may notice that three of the things that are good about the movie start with “The idea to…” But those things ended without bringing the ideas to enjoyable fruition. The way it turned out, it was actually a bad idea to do a third Mummy film, the idea to use China was fine but the resulting story wasn’t that interesting (though a good script doctor could have done great things with it), and they got Li and Yeoh in the film, and gave them both very little to do that was at all interesting.
This movie isn’t a labor of love for Stephen Sommers, who this time just produced. It possesses none of the warmth or wit or charm of the previous films. The action is dull. The characters are uninteresting, and the main characters are written inconsistently with their earlier portrayals.
This is a bad movie. But beyond that, it’s a bad movie with a worst thing about it. No, it’s a bad movie with a Worst Thing About It. And that worst thing is Maria Bello, who replaces Rachel Weisz (who read the script and smartly refused to do it) as Evy.
This Worst Thing About It is two sided. First, it’s bad because we lose Weisz, who was always magnetic and funny and smart and strong and just smoking hot as this character, and who had wondrous chemistry with Brendan Fraser.
Second, it’s bad because we wind up with Bello, who is a very talented actress, but plays Evy with all the spunk and sexiness of a wad of mashed potatoes, and who has absolutely no chemistry with Fraser.
I can’t overstate how badly this miscasting damages the film. The relationship between Rick and Evy is the heart of these movies, and had Weisz returned, this film would be at least twice as watchable just because of the dynamic between her and Fraser. Bello’s performance is a sinkhole that draws the attention and drains away even what little vim there is in this movie. Even my son, who normally wouldn’t be caught dead saying he cared about which actress plays a girl character, started kvetching almost immediately, and early in the film started cheering on the villains whenever they had Evy in deadly peril. He genuinely liked Rachel Weisz, and her replacement by Bello was so awful it was like a personal offense to him (and to me, and likely to a vast majority of fans of the previous films).
This film pretty much murders the franchise, and it’s a shame it had to go out not so much with a whimper, but with a fart. This Mummy stays dead, and it should never have been born.