BACK IN 1999, Universal looked to resurrect The Mummy franchise with a fresh, new approach.
The last time the bandaged fiend had graced the screens for the picture company, was in 1955 accompanied by comedy icons Abbott and Costello.
Apparently the original premise for this remake had British horror/filmmaker Clive Barker at the helm with the offering of a much darker route that was sexually charged and filled with mysticism.
One can only wonder at the concept of Imhotep taking on the Hell Priest, Pinhead.
As it was, Universal decided on a different approach when hiring Stephen Sommers and for the next 10 years, a second wave of Mummy movies was formed.
THE MUMMY (1999)
Prior to stepping on board to write and direct the feature, Sommers had four movies under his belt with Catch Me If You Can, The Adventures of Huck Finn, The Jungle Book, and Deep Rising.
So enough charge to take the lead in a bold, new direction, one that was in complete contrast to Barker’s vision, dialing down the horror and injecting more action, special fx, and comedy.
The result saw an Indiana Jones style romp through Egypt, as the rogue-ish Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), (who accidentally discovers the city of the dead, where the High Priest, Imhotep rests) teams up with the bookish Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and her bumbling buffoon of a brother, aptly played by John Hannah.
The trio head back to the city, despite being warned by an Egyptian warrior, Ardeth Bey not to intervene, to discover the Book of the Living.
As they discover the statue of Anubis, deep within the tomb, they also encounter the remains of Imhotep.
Meanwhile, their counterparts, a group of Americans led by the cowardly Beni discover the Book of the Dead among some jars, which carry the preserved organs o Anch-su-Namun, mistress of Pharaoh Seti I, and lover to the afore-mentioned Imhotep.
When Evelyn reads a page from the Book of the Dead, she unwittingly awakens the High Priest, who casts the 10 plagues back to Egypt.
One by one, the Americans are dispatched with great fashion, heightening the scare partially through darkened alleys, and all-out assault on the victims.
It is down to our trio of archaeologists to put an end to Imhotep’s reign of terror and entomb him once more.
It may be nearly twenty years on since it’s release now, but I think that it’s fair to say that The Mummy still stands the test of time, partly due to the great mix of comedy and action on display, plus the chemistry between Fraser and Weisz on screen is enjoyable to watch.
Credit should also be cast towards Arnold Vosloo, who portrays Imhotep with enough menace to make it the fear placed on our protagonists seem genuine and his performance has come close in signature to his predecessor Boris Karloff some 67 years prior.
The Mummy proved to be a perfect mix to entertain and generated a generous draw at the box office, which could only mean one thing. A sequel would be a certainty.
THE MUMMY RETURNS (2001)
The inevitably would occur a couple of years later and would see the return of O’Connell, Evelyn, (now married), Jonathan, Ardeth Bey and as the title suggests, the return of Imhotep.
The original players would come back to resurrect their roles and to ignite that much-loved chemistry once more for the silver screen.
Joining them in this movie is Alex O’Connell, the son of Rick and Evie, and the instigator of Imhotep’s rise from the grave.
With Alex’s life on the line, our intrepid heroes must try to save him within seven days, thus providing a tension of sorts to the mix.
Added to this is the unerring threat of Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson as The Scorpion King, who vowed to give Anubis his soul for the power to defeat his enemies. Here is a hint of an inevitable showdown with two foes on the horizon.
Along the way, Evelyn is captured by the reincarnated Anck-su-namun, who is eventually released but not without discovering that she lived a previous life as the Princess Neferiti. Go figure – let’s just crowbar that subplot in there.
There’s more drama in the mix as Alex is kidnapped too, then Evelyn is killed, only to be resurrected when Jonathon and Alex recite from the Book of the Dead.
The final showdown sees our heroes triumph over evil, of course, and riding off into the sunset, but the paying audience couldn’t help but feel slightly cheated by the special fx overriding care towards the character and plot, and because of this, some of the magic wasn’t carried across from its predecessor.
That didn’t deter our filmmakers from a third installment though, but first…
A VAN HELSING HIATUS – VAN HELSING (2004)
The last attempt that Universal took to amalgamate their Monsters universe would arrive in 2004, and would once again see Sommers at the helm to deliver the success received at box office with his previous two outings.
However, any harsh criticism that The Mummy Returns received seemed to have fallen on deaf ears as the same mistakes were repeated and furthermore, delved deeper still in the dire and diabolical.
Sommers goes hell-bent to deliver a CGI in fuelled overload with little or no care factor for the characters involved.
The result is that despite the desire to thrust the ”Monsters’ front and centre in an adrenaline, action-packed thrill-ride, there is no audience connection to said creatures and the desired impact leaves us wanting.
The usual ticks are there, with the distraught Frankenstein’s at the loss of his father who not only carries more compassion than the entire cast combined, but also the key to life – one that the melodramatic Dracula (and all-out bad-guy in this movie) played by Richard Roxburgh.
In fact the whole movie screams at high volume and extreme velocity that there’s no time to stop and think, but this is perhaps the director’s ruse all along – a vein attempt to hide that there is no substance or heart to the film at all.
As much as they try to inject some humour into the mix, with David Wenham’s friar, Carl, it’s not enough to elevate Van Helsing.
It’s saving grace if we can call it that comes in the form of the film’s leads, Kate Beckinsale as Anna Velarious (hot off the back of Underworld) delivering attitude aplenty, and Hugh Jackman as the titular character, dialling his Wolverine shtick up to 10.
Ultimately though, Van Helsing was a doomed experiment that falls short of Universal expectations and with it, the audience satisfaction.
THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR (2008)
The final effort during this era would come to an end in 2008, which says a lot about how the movie was received.
However, there was a lot going for the final act in the trilogy that shouldn’t be so easily scoffed at.
But let’s look at these pros and cons with a little bit of further dissection.
Firstly, out of the picture goes Stephen Sommers, which may actually be a good thing when you scrutinise his last couple of efforts.
Sommers has since gone on to what exactly? Directing the start of another franchise with GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra before disappearing into Egyptian dust.
In his place steps Rob Cohen, who had overseen action fare with Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Daylight, The Fast and the Furious, and XXX.
Also out was Rachel Weisz, for supposedly ‘citing problems with the script’ and to look after her newborn son.
This already sparked debate, as part of the appeal of the original movies was the chemistry between the leads.
The role of Evelyn O’Connell went to Maria Bello, who as fine an actress she is, couldn’t capture Weisz’ magic on-screen.
The script-writers do go some way to replicate this obvious change in dynamic by having Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser who does return) and Evie bored with the lack of adventure in their lives, but the damage is already done.
The leads are left to claw their way out of an impossible sandstorm of dialogue to try find that gem or sparkle between them.
The last of the returnees is John Hannah as Jonathon, but despite he’s spot on comic ability struggles to haul the deadweight of a script to life.
The injection of youth to the fore rests solely on the shoulders of a now grown up Alex O’Connell played by Luke Ford an actor schooled on the Meisner technique (a form of Method acting) in which you can’t fault him on his approach to authenticate his character, but once again the humour is missing which you could look to the script for its fault here.
Ford is believable enough, and is able to pull off the action-based moves with ease, but his character simply isn’t engaging enough.
The strengths though do reside with the Eastern contingency of the movie.
The choice to move away from Egypt and set up in China was bold, but the right one.
The franchise could have been in danger of stagnating, and this choice allowed for fresh new life to enter the fold.
Likewise the performances from Jet Li as Emperor Han aka The Dragon Emperor helped to lift the action from page to screen
As does Michelle Yeoh as Zi Yuan who performs with such gravitas that she puts the other actors to shame, such is the strength of her delivery.
It’s hard though to look beyond the faults though.
Despite the cast and crews best efforts, the audience is left with feeling like they’ve just witnessed the story as a square peg being rammed into a round hole.
A shame, as the ideas were there, but with too many of the original players falling by the wayside, the whole notion of recreating the magic.
Despite talks of a fourth instalment and Luke Ford attached to another 3 movies in the cabin, the truth was written in the sand with the poor box office return.
– Paul Farrell