"In Defense Of" is a look back at films that have been relegated to the dustbin of time - victims of critical thrashing, commercial failure, etc. - that attempts to sort through their perceived failures and bring their merits to light in an effort to conclude whether or not they deserve a better reputation.
Earlier this week, I took a look back at 1999’s The Mummy, coming to the conclusion that the propulsive adventure film still holds up today thanks in no small part to the charm it exudes from beginning to end. It’s not a master class in film-making, but it’s a perfect example of a big budget summer blockbuster done right, one whose shortcomings are more than made up for by its cast’s chemistry, its winking tone, fun production design, and some real, practical action sequences.
As I explored in my In Defense Of breakdown of Jaws 2, sequels are a tricky thing to get right. Stray too far off the path and away from what worked the first time, you risk alienating your audience if it doesn’t work, but stay too long on the road of imitating what they’re accustomed to and you’ll find they’ll reject it for being too familiar. Often, the key is to strike just the right balance between what’s comfortable and what’s not, easing audiences out of their comfort zone rather than forcibly dragging them out of it, but that’s far easier said than done, and it’s a trap that can make or break any sequel with one wrong step.
People who hated The Mummy back in 1999 were undoubtedly not looking forward to the arrival of its sequel, The Mummy Returns, just two years later, and many of those who did love The Mummy found that its sequel made more than just a few minor missteps. Over the last 15 years, The Mummy Returns has stood as a shining example to many of a sequel gone wrong; the type prone to embracing the “bigger is better” mentality that has kept so many sequels from being able to truly capture what worked the first time around. In the end, there’s no avoiding the simple truth that The Mummy Returns is dumber, louder, and needlessly bigger in comparison to its predecessor.
So now you may be asking why this movie that I’ve acknowledged is ridiculous is something that I’m willing to defend, and the answer is simple: Despite its faults, it managed to retain enough of the charm of the first film to work as an enjoyable companion piece, one that has many faults - which I’ll soon get into - but still works for me to this day. The Mummy is a better film by far, but like it, I can come across Returns on television and get sucked into it no matter where it is in its runtime.
Right off the bat, the sequel contorts itself to get all the major players back in the game. At the same time Rick and Evie - now married and with a kid, no less - come across a mythical bracelet belonging to the infamous Scorpion King, our old friend Imhotep is being dug up by those looking to bring him back to life so that he can defeat the Scorpion King, take control of his army, and rule the world. With old faces from the first film also finding their way into the sequel, including Evie’s brother Jonathan, the badass warrior Ardeth Bey, and a mysteriously resurrected Anck-su-Namun, the race is quickly on to stop both Imhotep and the Scorpion King from unleashing all types of untold horrors.
Save a few perfunctory jump scares, Returns completely drops any pretense of horror the first film tried to hold up, going full-bore into turning the O’Connell clan into action heroes, with Rick more capable than ever and Evie now able to hold her own against swordsmen, no longer the pacifist bookworm she once was. In doing so, the film also elevates the two characters to be more than just “normal people,” as the idea of destiny is explored in an effort to make Rick a straight-up warrior for God and Evie someone whose past life is fully entwined with those of Imhotep and Anck-su-Namun. It’s convenient and unnecessary, and even raises a few continuity issues, such as why Imhotep didn’t recognize Evie in the first film, but the film’s revelry in its own absurdity pretty much turns it into a non-issue when the entire thing itself is built on a foundation of coincidences anyway.
Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz slip back into the roles as though they never left, but thanks to the existence of their son, Alex, much of their lovable back-and-forth banter from the first film is dropped in favor of family drama once Alex is kidnapped. They spend a lot of time moping, and Fraser in particular is saddled with some terrible dialogue - his delivery of the line, “Oh, I hate mummies,” for instance - while a crucial dramatic moment in the final act when Evie is killed is completely undone by Fraser doing anything but selling it. Whereas the first film played into the character’s strengths as a rogue, no-nonsense guy, the sequel softens him up to his detriment, which is ironic because Evie’s arc across both films is Rick’s in reverse and it works.
Even still, the chemistry is still there between them, and even though characters like Jonathan and Ardeth feel like they're only around because they were in the first film, they, too, still click right back into place without missing a beat, with Ardeth in particular getting a lot more welcome screentime and things to do. Arnold Vosloo’s Imhotep also gets to do more than smirk and spout the occasional Egyptian this time around, and giving him a number of characters to actually interact with throughout the film, like Alex or Anck-su-Namun, really does help him stick out even more than the original. His ultimate abandonment by the love of his life is a surprising standout moment across both films, and it’s still refreshing to see such a big villain undone not by the heroes or his own machinations but by his own choice, his sole motivation quite literally turning its back on him and robbing him of the will to go on.
Patricia Velasquez and Freddie Boath are serviceable as Anck-su-Namun and Alex, respectively, their performances teetering between working and not, and Adewale Akkinuoye-Agbaje - who has done unforgettable work on shows like Oz and Lost - is fun but thoroughly wasted as one of Imhotep’s grunts. In a way, the sequel is missing the presence of a secondary character with a personality that pops like the first film’s Beni. The only other major addition to the cast is The Rock as the Scorpion King, which was a big deal back in 2001 but ultimately amounts to nothing, as the character makes little impact in the prologue at the top of the film, doesn’t demonstrate the actor’s incredible charisma we all have grown accustomed to over the years, and has any and all presence completely destroyed when he finally resurfaces in the final act.
I can distinctly remember sitting in the theater with my father back in 2001 and being thoroughly dismayed by what we were seeing when the Scorpion King emerges from his chamber near the end of the film, an anticipated moment thoroughly ruined by CGI that was terrible even back then. 15 years on, it’s only gotten worse, the grotesque man-scorpion hybrid still sucking the air out of the film every time it’s on screen. It’s bad, and unfortunately the film is populated with CGI that hasn’t aged well at all, including a dreadful effect of Imhotep mid-regeneration turning to the camera.
One thing that has worked in the original film’s favor was its minimal use of CGI, with loads of practical effects and sets and action sequences all still working together to stave off the film’s aging. I can’t say the same for Returns, which not only features lots of noticeable green screen set work, but rehashes moments from the first film in order to supersize them with CGI. The biplane escaping the sandstorm in the first film has been replaced by a poorly-rendered dirigible attempting to outrun poorly-rendered water, while the run through Hamunaptra’s actual sets after Imhotep’s defeat has been replaced by the cast standing on the Scorpion King’s temple as the surrounding jungle is vacuumed up. It’s borderline unforgivable, making the original film look so much better in comparison, and the overuse of glaring CGI in so many aspects of the film is something I truly cannot defend, particularly when much of it already looked dated enough opening weekend.
That said, the film does have a number of action scenes that do work, including a rescue mission at the British Museum that escalates into a chase across London in a double-decker bus and a sequence reminiscent of the raptors in the tall grass scene from The Lost World: Jurassic Park featuring pygmies hunting Imhotep’s soldiers, and the design of the dog-like members of Anubis’ army is pretty cool. Unlike the first film, which had a relatively patient buildup over the first hour of the film, Returns wastes no time in kicking things into gear, and though some of the action scenes go on a bit longer than necessary - something The Mummy didn’t have a problem with - there’s still an overall sense of fun in seeing these characters do their thing.
Outside some action beats and some jokes from the first film being recycled - for instance, Alex knocks over a number of pillars in the exact same fashion as Evie knocked over the bookcases in her introduction and the whole “It’s a bird… a stork!” confusion resurfaces - Returns at least does become more than just a total retread of its predecessor. Whereas the first film mainly featured the characters bouncing between Cairo and Hamunaptra, the sequel sees them constantly moving all across Egypt in search of the Scorpion King’s oasis. Other familiar elements from The Mummy, like the scarabs or the agile warrior mummies, reappear early on enough for Returns to simply get such perfunctory expectations over with and move on before introducing all-new elements like the aforementioned pygmies and the army of Anubis.
Gone, too, is Jerry Goldsmith’s sweeping score, with Alan Silvestri stepping in to give the big sequel a rousing, adventurous score that’s incredibly propulsive. None of Goldsmith’s work is used at all, sadly, but Silvestri’s clean slate gave him the chance to infuse the film with his own typical flavor, and it’s one that compliments the not-so-serious adventure wonderfully. It’s grand in its own way, giving so much life to the film in that special Silvestri way, and the primary theme has stayed with me all these years later.
In the end, even I can’t deny where The Mummy Returns stumbles. Its overabundance of spotty-to-terrible CGI has done it no favors, its performances are a bit weaker as a result of trying to force in drama, its plot is anything but deep, and it sometimes unnecessarily retreads familiar territory. That said, it’s a film that’s as much bolstered by its overzealous energy as it is crippled by its misguided belief that bigger is better; one with a cast that’s still game to throw themselves into the type of film they’re making, a handful of slick action sequences, and a pervasive sense of excitement, all set to an excellent Silvestri score. At the least, it is leagues better than the third and final film released in 2008 - which we’ll just continue to pretend doesn’t exist - but taken together with The Mummy, The Mummy Returns still stands as an imperfect but wholly entertaining film to kick back and enjoy simply for what it is: Fun.
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