Not wrapped quite tight enough

Review: `The Mummy' does a pretty good job of matching the menace of the Boris Karloff classic -- until the Stooges show up.

May 07, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

"The Mummy" could have been one heck of a thrill ride, if only its cast wasn't intent on being the Three Stooges.

That the movie doesn't irretrievably sink under the weight of its woefully misplaced madcap antics is testimony to a special-effects team that continually outdoes itself and a villain who makes for one seriously mean undead machine.

When "The Mummy" sticks to its source material, those walking advertisements for Ace bandages that have been wandering the streets of Cairo since Pharaoh's time, it's one cool flick. Not scary exactly, since mainstream Hollywood these days has largely forgotten how to scare audiences, but definitely menacing and visually impressive, particularly the computer-generated ancient Egyptian tableau that opens the film.

It's too bad Larry, Moe and Shemp keep showing up.

Less a remake of 1932's "The Mummy" (featuring Boris Karloff at his creepiest) than an expansion, the film opens in ancient Thebes, where the high priest Imhotep and Pharaoh's wife, Anck-Su-Namun, are indulging in some decidedly high-risk necking. Of course Pharaoh finds out, a discovery that drives the missus to suicide and Imhotep to one of those ever-popular fates-worse-than-death: He's mummified alive, destined to spend eternity slowly rotting away while buried deep beneath the sands of the lost city of Hamunaptra. His only possible salvation: if someone is stupid enough to dig him up.

Fast-forward a few millenniums to 1923, and a whole gaggle of such stupid people descends on Egypt. One team is led by dashing Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser, acting like a dime-store Indiana Jones) and includes mousy librarian Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and her gold-seeking brother Jonathan (John Hannah). The other consists of three American would-be cowboys and O'Connell's former friend, the weaselly Beni (Kevin J. O'Connor, who overacts so shamelessly that he should probably serve some hard time).

The film takes off when they release Imhotep on an unsuspecting world. Played almost wordlessly by South African actor Arnold Vosloo (imagine Yul Brynner on a really bad day), Imhotep is as nasty as they come. Locusts spew from his mouth, he can materialize wherever he wants, and the swirling sands respond to his commands. Even worse, his arrival pretty much heralds the end of the world, since he's a force of unquenchable evil.

But what Imhotep really wants to do is bring back Anck-Su-Namun, and for that he needs Evelyn -- or, more precisely, Evelyn's body, soul and other essentials.

All of which means our heroes, particularly O'Connell, have a lot of saving to do.

Imhotep is such a fierce presence, and his powers are so powerfully depicted, that "The Mummy" threatens to be that rarest of rarities, a Hollywood remake that compares to the original. But writer-director Stephen Sommers (Disney's live-action "The Jungle Book," "Deep Rising") keeps trying to graft slapstick onto the proceedings.

Fraser spends more time wisecracking than he does rescuing, Hannah and O'Connor seem to have a contest going to see who can be the most irritatingly Stooge-like, and even newcomer Oded Fehr as Ardeth Bay, whose life is dedicated to containing Imhotep, is reduced to vomiting over the side of a biplane. (Homage alert: Ardeth Bay was the name used by Karloff's mummy in his modern-day guise.)

But given all that -- and we won't even talk about Sommers' sloppy plotting -- "The Mummy" has more than enough great visuals to make it worth the effort. All the hyena-like antics of its stars pale when Imhotep spreads his arms and a 3,000-year-old Egyptian army comes to life.

`The Mummy'

Starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz and John Hannah

Directed and written by Stephen Sommers

Released by Universal

Rated PG-13 (violence and some partial nudity)

Running time: 134 minutes

Sun score:***

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