Mon
Aug 15 2016 2:30pm

Passionate About Pulp: Revisiting The Mummy (1999)

THE SUBGENRE: Supernatural adventure.
THE HEROES (WHO HAPPEN TO BE LOVE INTERESTS): Egyptologist Evelyn Carnahan and French Foreign Legion soldier-turned-convict Rick O'Connell.
THE VILLAIN: Imhotep, high priest and murderous mummy.
THE SETTING: 1920's Egypt.

All her life, Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) has dreamed of exploring ancient tombs and proving her worth as a serious Egyptologist. But, in the 1920's, a lady has to really fight for recognition, especially when those pesky Bembridge Scholars keep rejecting her applications because she “doesn't have enough experience in the field.”

So, when her sketchy brother Jonathan (John Hannah) shows up in Cairo with a “puzzle box” that contains a map to the legendary lost city of Hamunaptra, Evie throws herself headlong into adventure.

With the map half-destroyed, she has to turn to the previous owner of the puzzle box, the man Jonathan stole it from, for guidance: a disgraced Foreign Legion soldier, Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser).

Only it turns out that the now felonious Mr. O'Connell is not long for this world—when Evie interrupts his execution, he has no choice but to agree to lead her, Jonathan, and the prison warden (Omid Djalili), who tags along because Evie promised him a percentage of treasure in exchange for the eleventh hour pardon, to the cursed city.

Because this is Egypt, and an adventure romp set in the 1920's, of course the lost city of Hamunaptra is cursed. Turns out that High Priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) was buried alive three thousand years ago for:

  1. Daring to love the pharaoh's mistress, Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez)
  2. Stabbing the pharaoh to death with his mistress
  3. Attempting to resurrect Anck-Su-Namun, following her death.

Whoops. Talk about career suicide and bad life choices. The crazy things people do for love...

Anyhoo, back in the “present,” Evie and Co. inevitably find the sacred Book of the Dead, and Evie, of course, lets her scholarly curiosity get the better of her. A couple magic spells are chanted and VOILA!—look who's back and ready to suck a few Americans dry in order to reclaim his human body?

With a mondo-powerful mummy on their trail, Evie and Rick team up with the ridiculously good-looking warrior Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr) and do their damndest to defeat Imhotep before he can destroy the world…or bring back his dead girlfriend—though that latter bit is vastly more important to him at the moment.

The Mummy is one of those near-perfect action films. It's got a beautiful balance of humor and adventure, a ridiculously good cast with crazy chemistry, and delightful characters. There's fun dialogue, a dash of magic, Hammer-style horror, and just enough romance.

The perfect recipe for a darn good time, basically.

It was one of those “lightning in a bottle” situations. Of course, (most) filmmakers set out to make a great film—but sometimes they seem to come about organically, hitting theaters at just the right moment, in a way that could never be calculated or perfectly planned. The Mummy was absolutely one of those films, a movie that manages to charm even after countless re-watches.

I should know; I saw the film in theatres at an age when it really made an impact on me. Despite having very little pocket money, I managed to see The Mummy five times that summer and promptly bought the VHS when it was released.

It's almost certainly the film I've re-watched the most times—I stopped counting around the 75 mark. Its sequel was the first movie I remember actively counting down to, and it's a film that has become a sort of litmus test for all of my friendships.

Why do I love this film so much?

Well, it's got a lot to do with Evie. She's a strong-willed, intelligent lady, determined to make her mark and prove her mettle. Her curiosity does unleash Imhotep, yes, but it's that same curiosity and passion for discovery that enables her to destroy him, too. Evie creates the bad situation, but she's not automatically condemned by the text for doing so—she's still a hero within the story, still in charge of her destiny, and she amends for her mistakes.

I just love Evie, who became an instant role model for Little Angie. A librarian who doesn't balk when faced with danger or unpleasantness; a woman whose passions and talents ultimately save the day.

Rick may have been introduced first, and may be the more traditional “hero” figure of this pulpy set-up, but The Mummy is truly Evie's story.

Speaking of Rick: talk about a dream guy. He's rough and ready for action, decked out with guns and knives and fully prepared to leap off a boat or threaten a screaming sword-wielding man with a lit stick of dynamite.

But, he's also a total goop around Evie, going out of his way to do kind things for her. He spends a large bulk of their scenes together just staring at her like she's incredible (rightly so). Dudes who look at ladies like they hung the moon remain my ultimate narrative kryptonite.

And, when you factor in the awesome boots and holsters and how he's played by peak-hotness Brendan Fraser, you have the perfect pulp protagonist. He's an expat American getting into trouble in Egypt; a member of the French Foreign Legion who walked alone into the desert and survived to tell the tale.

You've just gotta love a guy who looks at a roaring, supernatural mummy and says deadpan, “We are in serious trouble.”

Beyond the standalone greatness of Evie and Rick, there's the combined greatness of their fun romance. The two have a very Nick and Nora-style dynamic, full of quippy banter and sizzling chemistry. I always appreciate when my action films handle romance in an entertaining way without resorting to gross misogynist jokes, stereotypes, or power imbalances.

I also love how easy and comfortable the progression of their relationship feels; there's never any explicit sex or declarations of love to shove the fact of it in our faces. It's a much lighter touch than one usually expects in pulp fiction.

Then there's Imhotep. Boy, do I prefer baddies who are complicated and understandable. A mummy who wants to destroy the world just because he's eeeeevil?

Meh. Been there, done that, thwarted that particular apocalypse way too many times to count.

But, a mummy who won't hesitate to destroy the world because all he wants is to be reunited with his long-dead beloved? Juicy.

Imhotep is a guy you feel for. Sure, he may have murdered the old pharaoh with some over-enthusiastic stabbing, and yeah, he does sort of drain the life-force from a bunch of American explorers. But, he's just a big ol' romantic at heart, really. A soppy.

All's fair in love and mummification, right?

Besides: I'd be a little peeved, too, if I'd been mummified alive. If you woke up with all of the powers of the “ten plagues of Egypt,” wouldn't you be tempted to rain down some brimstone on everyone who dares to cross you?

As for the rest of the cast, John Hannah plays the comic relief as the bumbling, light-fingered Jonathan, but he's always more endearing than annoying. His relationship with sister Evie feels authentic: a mixture of pride, love, and frustration.

Sharing half of the story's comedic burden is Kevin O'Connor as Beni, Rick's former Foreign Legion pal turned opportunistic sleazeball. Beni's a bug, essentially—one you long to see squished—and O'Connor does a brilliant job playing him as a twitchy, self-serving little bastard.

Oded Fehr is simply ruinously handsome as the dashing, noble Ardeth Bay—so handsome, in fact, that director Stephen Sommers nixed the original idea of having the Medjai tattooed from head to toe. Why? Because it wouldn't be fair to the ladies in the audience to cover up all of that handsomeness. I can only say a very heartfelt thank you.

And, yes, for those who recognize the name: this is just one of many points where this take on the story differs from the original Universal classic. This time, rather than the mummy himself, Bay is descended from the pharaoh's royal bodyguards, sworn to guard Hamunaptra at any cost. If you go into The Mummy hoping for a faithful reboot/remake of the Karloff original, you're gonna be disappointed.

But, in my opinion, if you're disappointed, then you're focusing on all the wrong details. Compared to the original this is—yes, I'm going to say it; call me a blasphemer if you want—the superior outing.

It's far and away more exciting and entertaining, with a rousing soundtrack and humorous fight choreography. The good guys are more likeable, the baddies relatable—yes, even the scummy Beni—and it's always an exciting time when you've got sword fights, black magic, pistols, and explosions galore. It's pulpy goodness to the max.

Plus, I love when books and smarts end up saving the world. Even more so when such things are wielded by an awesome lady. Sure, I may be a little biased...

See also: Passionate About Pulp: Revisiting Dick Tracy (1990)

 


Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. Come find the angie bee at Tumblr.

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1 comment
1. bsidegirl
Oh Angie!! You hit all the points why I love this movie so much. The heart is Evie, and how her knowledge saves her (and everybody) in the end. She could be the damsel in distress but she's too smart for that. She gets into trouble and finds a way to fix it. And Rick *sigh*, so dashing, heroic and hilarious. I love his chemistry with Evelyn, they click beautifully.
I love this movie so much. So thank you for this!
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