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'The Mummy': Shriek of the Burning Sand

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 1999

  Movie Critic

The Mummy
Rachel Weisz and Brendan Fraser recoil in horror of "The Mummy." (Universal)

Stephen Sommers
Brendan Fraser;
Rachel Weisz;
John Hannah;
Arnold Vosloo;
Stephen Dunham
Running Time:
2 hours, 5 minutes
Much "playful" violence
See, it's not really a mummy movie. What it is, it's a bald guy movie.

Here are the rules: Mummy movies have a slow-walking, rotting, undead cadaver stumbling around, crushing people. Mummies are stealthy, not fast. You never see a mummy run. Rotting linen bandages by the mile are mandatory. On the other hand, bald guy movies have some sleek oily grief merchant intimidating with the strength of his glare and the crown of his dome, and then he usually strangles people. I don't know why, your bald guy is usually a strangler.

That's what you find in the all-but-mummyless "Mummy." Almost no mummies, one very large bald guy. Still, it's difficult to hold this against Universal Studios. How well would you expect a movie called "Bald Guy" to do? These people are not in business to lose money. And anyway, most of the last half of the movie has nothing to do with either bald guys or mummies but with that first-person shooter game called Doom. It's simply an invitation to watch Brendan Fraser blast dusty, smoky holes in shambling apparitions as they come at him in a cellarlike Egyptian treasure chamber.

The movie is fast and furious, shallow, empty, casually racist, merry, jaunty, silly and utterly weightless. It certainly lacks the grandeur of the original from 1932, which starred the great Boris Karloff. This one appears to star Mr. Clean.

Our mummy is the South African actor Arnold Vosloo, playing the Egyptian priest Imhotep. When first glimpsed in a pre-title sequence that could easily be the opening number in "Prince of Egypt" – that is to say, a Universal imitation of a DreamWorks imitation of Disney imitating Cecil B. De Mille – he's trysting with his love lady, who happens to be Pharaoh's mistress. Pharaoh is not happy, and when he confronts the priest and the babe, they kill him.

Priest escapes; babe kills self. Priest steals body, repairs to City of the Dead to reawaken her so they can get it on. Pharaoh's bodyguard tracks priest, mummifies him alive with 300 flesh-eating beetles. Wrinkle: If he is awakened – some mumbo-jumbo has to be spoken at the right time in the right sequence as recorded in the Book of the Dead – he becomes all-powerful. Why? Ancient Egyptian wisdom says: If he doesn't awaken, the movie won't open big in malls from Bangor to Albuquerque.

Enough plot, which hardly matters anyhow. The gist of it is that soon we are in the Egypt of 1926, where Yank soldier of fortune Rick O'Connell (Fraser) teams with the English bro-sis team of Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and Jonathan (John Hannah) in an attempt to reach the City of the Dead and recover the Book of the Dead, as well as the treasure. Alas, there's another crew of treasure hunters about, friendly competitors, whose one defining characteristic is that they have very square faces. They're like refugees from a Dick Tracy comic strip. Occasionally noticeable in the deep background are plenty of dusky Third Worlders whose duty is to die screaming in a variety of colorful ways in order to advance the plot. What is an American adventure movie – or, for that matter, an American adventure – without a cast of thousands dying out of focus?

Thanks to some really important technical breakthroughs that have aided our civilization immensely, we are able to see the Mummy in an unwrapped yet ambulatory stage as a rotting corpse with a bad attitude. For about the middle third of the picture, he clambers about, reassembling himself by looting the eyes, tongues, flesh and loincloths of those who freed him. He also has a plague trick and at the drop of a finger can summon a cloud of locusts, a tide of beetles or a napalm attack. He even appears able to move the moon into the way of the sun for a few minutes, but once that trick's finished nobody ever mentions it again.

Director Stephen Sommers (who also wrote the screenplay and must be adjudged guilty on two counts) keeps the thing running fast, along '30s serial lines. It's all bangbangbang with a comic subtext (Big American Fraser is stupid but brave; wily bro Hannah is smart but a coward; big-eyed babe Weisz is sexy but klutzy) and whenever they can't figure out what to do in the adventure movie, they kill a lot of people.

In fact, though "The Mummy" probably hopes to be associated with classy camp thrillers like "Raiders of the Lost Ark," its unbearably high body count among the world's people of nonwhite color compels its entry in a lesser genre, which might be called, however clumsily, "Attempted old-fashioned films that foundered on their flagrant disregard for human life." The genre highlights would be Tommy Lee Jones's "Nate and Hayes," truly despicable, or Tom Selleck's bomb-crazy "High Road to China" – movie remnants of the age of imperialism that regrettably lingered into the age of anti-imperialism.

In its shallow way, "The Mummy" amuses as it bustles along, littering the sand with the dead in pursuit of gold. Nearly everybody dies, even, in the end, some white people. But where the original – one of the great trio of spooky, splendid horrors of the '30s, with "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" – offered stealthy horror and the power of the imagination, this Mum is only selling the latest in computer morphing techniques. Oh Mummy, poor Mummy, Universal's hung you in the closet and I'm feeling so crummy.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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