Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Director Report Card: Stephen Sommers (2001)

6. The Mummy Returns

Stephen Sommers' “The Mummy” would gross over 400 million dollars, which was an even bigger number in 1999. Supposedly, the day after the film opened in theaters, Universal executives called the director up, demanding he make a sequel. Sommers went right to work on “The Mummy Returns.” The sequel would have a surprisingly fast production, coming out only two years after the first film. “The Mummy Returns” would nearly match the “The Mummy's” box office and launch the career of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Reviews, however, were not especially kind at the time, most critics calling it inferior to the first. Certain fans, however, love part two just as much as part one. I shared that opinion as a kid but it's fair to say my taste have evolved a bit since then.

Ten years after the events of “The Mummy,” Rick O'Connel and Evie have married. Their son, Alex, is just as precocious as his parents. Through their adventures, they uncover a magical bracelet related to the Scorpion King. An ancient warlord, the Scorpion King made a deal with the god Anubis, granting him terrible powers. Now, it's said that whoever controls the Scorpion King's powers will tumble empires. A group of villains resurrect Imhotep, with the goal of killing the Scorpion King and ruling the world. Alex ends up with the magical bracelet strapped to his arms. The bad guys take him and his parents have to rescue him, along with stopping the Mummy and defeating the Scorpion King.

“The Mummy Returns” is the purest definition of an excessive sequel. The movie sets out to top the spectacle of the original in every way. It outright references many of the first film's beloved gags. Meanwhile, it piles on the CGI, subplots, monsters and madness. Sommers' sequel is so determined to be bigger than the original in every way, that many of the elements that made the first film charming are left out. Characters are lost in a sea of special effects and sloppy writing. That last point especially sticks in my teeth. Many times, it becomes apparent that “The Mummy Returns” was written and produced quickly, to cash in on the original while it was still fresh in the public's mind.

The first “Mummy” had a MacGuffin or two. It threw in some poorly explained lore. The sequel, meanwhile, is practically built upon these things. There's at least three magical artifacts. There's a number of mythological events that must be completed for the plot to advance. If this person isn't in this location by this time, they'll die. If you do this to this person, this other thing will happen. Characters gain and loose superpowers as the script demands it. Exposition is heaped on the viewer by the bucket load. The script is a tangled mess of bullshit that barely makes any sense within its own universe, much less our's.

There's a story troupe I dislike that “The Mummy Returns” is especially guilty off. All the characters are connected by some grand destiny. In the sequel, we discover that Evie is the reincarnation of an Egyptian princess. But not just any princess but the daughter of the Pharaoh that Imhotep killed. Turns out she had a rivalry with Anck-Su-Namun, which is reignited when Evie meets her reincarnated soul. This is a real ass-pull of a plot point, barely justify by a brief line in the original where Evie mentions she has Egyptian blood. "The Mummy Returns" doesn't stop there. Rick, we learn, has a significant tattoo that marks him as a Medjai, part of a sacred order of chosen warriors. Funny that didn't come up in the first movie, isn't it? It's all too neat and smacks of a writer who has run out of ideas.

What's another desperate move sequels make when they are out of ideas? How about we introduce a kid? Alex O'Connel is as brilliant as his mom and has his dad's smart mouth. A precocious kid is the last thing this overstuffed sequel needed. As is usually the case with child character, Alex is fucking annoying. Most of the movie is his fault, as he just couldn't resist a shiny bracelet. He spends the majority of the film annoying a fearsome warrior, who is wholly justified in his desire to murder him. Freddie Boath, who turned down “Harry Potter” for this movie, is super aggravating. He puts too much childish zest into every line, coming off as entirely obnoxious.

“The Mummy Returns” is smart enough to bring back every major player from the first film. The overstuffed script pushes the limits of Brendan Fraser's charm. He is actively, visibly baffled by the events happening around him. Despite this, Fraser's skill with a joke is still present. So is his chemistry with Rachel Weisz. Evie has transformed from a dowdy librarian to a sexy she-warrior in this film, kicking nearly as much ass as her husband. Weisz actually excels as this, embracing the stunts. John Hannah and Oded Fehr are back as Jonathan and Ardith Bey. Hannah happily hams it up while Fehr plays a more sensitive version of his hero. As the title promises, Arnold Vosloo returns as well, glaring and flexing as much as he did the first time.

Sadly, the many new additions to the film add very little. Patricia Velasquez served her role in “The Mummy,” appearing in the opening flashback as the living Anck-Su-Namun, prancing around briefly in a loincloth and body paint. Elevated to a regular character here, the limits of Velasquez' range become apparent. She's a wooden actress stuck in an empty character. There's far too many villains in this one. The exceptionally voweled Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje shows up as a heavy, grunting and swinging a sword. Alun Armstrong appears as an evil museum curator. There's a whole collection of grave robbers, all of them annoyingly broad. Among the good guys, we're also introduced to Shaun Parkes' Izzy. Parkes' mugs furiously in every scene, mostly existing to get our heroes from point A to point B. The cast is stuffed to the breaking point, these newcomers having only the most superficial personalities.

“The Mummy” had its share of CGI shenanigans. However, the computer generated effects were mostly well utilized. The sequel, however, overdoes it in a serious way. Despite having a bigger budget than the first and being made further along in the age of CGI, the effects in “The Mummy Returns” actually look way worst. An early scene has mummies leaping around the walls of buildings in a way that looks super cheesy. Later, Imhotep controls a wall of water, his face appearing in the waves. This looks egregiously bad, the actors clearly never being in the same place as the effects. Once the pygmy mummies and humanoid-scorpion monster shows up, “The Mummy Returns” has left any semblance of reality behind. None of these effects are convincing.

As with everything else, “The Mummy Returns” features far more action than “The Mummy.” There's a shoot-out in the O'Connel residence, a shoot-out in the museum, a chase scene in a double decker bus, just for starters. Some of these action scenes seem especially forced in, like a duel in ancient Egypt utilizing Japanese sais. By the end, “The Mummy Returns” features an army of jackal-headed anubis warriors. These scenes are fitfully entertaining. However, Stephen Sommers' direction is busier. He employs far more slow-mo. This is most evident in the climatic fight between Rick, Imhotep, and the Scorpion King, which devolves into embarrassing “Matrix” style bullet time.

I've already criticized “The Mummy Returns'” screenplay. However, the bullshit writing choices on display in the last act deserve special attention. Rick and Alex outrun the rising sun, which is a level of ridiculousness too high even for this movie. A minor villain is brutally killed off for no reason. It's as if Sommers remembered this guy was still floating around and decided he had to go, somehow. A major character is killed off and then brought back to life in the cheapest, laziest way imaginable. Lastly, the unstoppable Scorpion King is killed off thanks to a blatant deus ex machina. What makes this plot point especially insulting is that how the heroes discover it. The way to kill the Scorpion King is printed on a wall... In his own temple! That seems like poor planning.

“The Mummy Returns” sets out to do about one hundred different things. Among those goals is introducing the Rock to the film-going public. Now, Dwayne Johnson is maybe the biggest movie star in the world. In 2001, he was merely a popular pro-wrestler, attempting to break into mainstream movies. Most of “The Mummy Returns'” advertising campaign was devoted to hyping up the Rock's Scorpion King character. He would receive his own spin-off the next year, which would spawn three direct-to-video sequels. Despite this, Johnson himself only appears in the opening scene. For the finale, he's replaced with a seriously underwhelming CGI creation. The massive charm and affable attitude that would make Johnson a star aren't very evident here. In fact, his delivery is stiff and unconvincing, even if his impressive physicality is already on display.

“The Mummy Returns” was certainly popular in its day, though wasn't quite as big a hit as the first. It's easy to see why kids loved it. It has just as much humor as the first but even more insane action. Yet, watching with adult eyes, it's obviously a weaker film. Sommers is trying too hard to top himself, resulting in a garbled script and overdone special effects. Most parties realized the series had run its course... Until Universal would crank out another “Mummy” movie, seven years later, that proved even worst than this one. As overstuffed as “The Mummy Returns” is, Stephen Sommers at least knew when to let sleeping mummies lie. [Grade: C-]

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