Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Mummy Multipack For Those Who Simply MUST Have The Mummy Trilogy. Meh.

The Good: Moments of humor, Moments of effect, DVD bonus features are thorough
The Bad: Recycled plots, Light on character development, Nothing amazing in the acting, Overbearing soundtracks.
The Basics: Fairly blase and average at best, The Mummy Trilogy is hardly essential for anyone's DVD library.

In the history of great motion picture trilogies, there are the inevitable multipacks that follow. And even the Trilogies that are not, ultimately, all that great, seem to end up as multipacks. I write that with some sense of disappointment because after years of hype, I finally sat down and watched the three Brendan Fraser Mummy movies and I found them to be alternately bad, campy and worse. As a result, the multipack which puts the three movies together is hardly enchanting and at best works itself up to the status of mildly entertaining.

The thing is, The Mummy films are essentially special effect action films. They have sub-par special effects in several key sequences that make them more laughable than exciting and the prevalence of humor throughout makes the menace hard to take seriously as well. One suspects this is why actress Rachel Weisz did not come back for the third installment of the franchise. The Mummy Trilogy is a bundle pack of the three two-disc versions of each film and it does not include any additional features or discs special for this set.

This is a simple bulk pack of:
The Mummy
The Mummy Returns
The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor

For those unfamiliar with it, The Mummy introduces Rick O'Connell. Rick O'Connell, while working with the French Foreign Legion, unearths the ruins of the ancient city of Hamunaptra. Unfortunately, his entire squadron - save the cowardly Beni - is slaughtered and only Rick survives. Eve and Jonathan Carnahan spring Rick from prison during his execution when they come upon a map and evidence that they think will help them find Hamunaptra. Impressed into service, as Eve has bought his life, Rick guides Eve toward Hamunaptra.

In a race against a rival team - of Americans - led by Beni, Rick leads Eve and Jonathan to the ruins. Once there, the Americans steal several artifacts and in the meddling, the body of the mummy of Imhotep is disturbed. Awakened from his long slumber, he begins to hunt Eve, thinking she is the love of his immortal life, Anck Su Namun. And Rick, seeing Imhotep slaughtering the Americans to get more of a corporeal form, works to save Eve from death . . . or worse!

The Mummy is fairly solidly entertaining. While it is often compared to Raiders Of The Lost Ark (reviewed here!) the enduring themes of greed vs. culture are entirely lacking from The Mummy. It does not seem to strive to be anything more than what it is. As a result, it is fun, mildly funny, but not much more than that. In other words, the one-liners do not so much add up to characters as simply fill in the gaps between action sequences and expositional dialogue. In fact, the film often feels like it has a multiple personality disorder: it oscillates pretty radically between campy, comedy and over-telegraphed action adventure.

The first sequences in the movie involve the backstory of Imhotep and Anck Su Namun and with the voice-overs narrating the events that are already pretty obvious, the sequence is pretty campy. While it provides the requisite backstory, the voice-over is somewhat insulting to the viewer, who sees the affair and the implication of it and does not need the additional reinforcement of being told it as well.

After the campy opening which provides the history of Imhotep and his lover and how he was mummified, the film turns into a comedy with Rick and Beni fighting in Africa. Beni's comical running in the face of danger is genuinely worthy of laughter, but some of the early catch phrases and Rick's next appearance in the prison are hardly funny. The Mummy degenerates into something of a farce as it becomes a race movie between Rick's team and the Americans. The movie wastes some time trying to be funny aboard the boat to the desert near Hamunaptra and it is because of the amount of time the film devotes to slapstick farcical comedy in this section that the movie fails to come back from it. It is pretty basic moviemaking; if you set the film up with forty-five minutes of laughter, it is hard to expect something different in the last hour.

And by the time the film decides that it wants to be an action-adventure film, it goes over-the-top in that regard, too. Jerry Goldsmith's fanfares are ridiculous and intrusive, playing along each and every movement in the film in a way - like the voice-overs at the beginning - that telegraphs the emotion the viewer is supposed to be feeling. It is like the soundtrack is an obnoxious kid sitting next to one at the movie, tugging on one's sleeve piping up with, "Hey! Isn't this exciting! I'm excited! I'm so excited! You should be excited too!" over and over again. We get it by the running, the stabbing, the jumping, and the sudden reversals where the mummy armies are in front of Rick instead of behind him. We get it, it's exciting. Sit down and let us be excited about it, as opposed to reminding us to stay excited! This is not one of Goldsmith's better soundtracks.

But to be fair to Jerry Goldsmith, it is not like he had a wealth of truly great material to work with. The Mummy is an attempt at a big-budget special effects comedy or action adventure and that is what it is trading on. As a result, it is not like there are a lot of tender character moments or compelling dialogue to hold the movie when the characters aren't cracking wise or running from CG monsters.

This is especially problematic in that Rick O'Connell is not exactly a great character. Rick stumbles upon clues and the solutions to problems and is not even the driving cognitive force of the movie. For that, one needs to look at Eve. Eve is smart, educated and clumsy. Those three traits are at least one more trait than springs to mind about Rick. Even Beni has his cowardice and the cowardice as a character aspect works to serve the plot; Beni's freak-out as the Mummy moves in to kill him leads him to go through an encyclopedia of protective prayers, one of which allows him to survive as the mummy's slave.

But even Eve's surplus of character is soon sacrificed to service the plot. Strong and intellectual, Even soon is relegated to the role of damsel in distress when the reanimated mummy begins his reign of terror. It is Rick and force that are used to hold off the mummy long enough for Eve to come through (with the assist by her brother). But the amount of time Eve spends as the damsel is distressing given how strong her character begins the film as.

That said, the acting in The Mummy has its moments. They are not the traditionally great moments of acting that one would expect. But, for example, Kevin J. O'Connor is great in The Mummy. How can I say that? He performed as an awkward doctor who practiced hard science in a television series called Gideon's Crossing. He plays Beni in this so radically different, yet with equal conviction, that it affirms the quality of his performance abilities.

Also entirely convincing is Rachel Weisz as Evelyn Carnahan. Weisz is articulate around every bit of the technobabble and she does an amazing job with the physical comedy when she is compelled to play the role of Eve as clumsy. She speaks her most difficult lines with articulation and there is not a moment while she is on screen that the viewer suspects she is anyone other than Evelyn Carnahan.

The best of the bunch, The Mummy Returns, continues the story by retelling essentially the same plot with an additional villain. In it, a legend tells of the Scorpion King, a warrior who attempted to take over the world, but was thwarted after years of campaigns. In his darkest moment, he made a pact with a dark god who helped him win for a while longer, until he was finally routed and the god collected his soul. Approximately every thousand years, the Scorpion King resurrects as a minion of that dark god and tries to conquer the world. This Year Of The Scorpion finds Rick and Evelyn O'Connell exploring a new set of ruins based upon a dream Evelyn had that disturbed her. Inside the ruins, Evelyn has flashes of what the place looked like at its peak, including people there and she and Rick liberate a box - and their son - from the structure before heading back to London.

In London, the O'Connell's prepare for a few days of less dangerous work when little Alex opens the mysterious box and puts on the Scorpion King's bracelet and they find their mansion under attack by agents of the museum curator. That same curator is working to raise Imhotep from his mummified status again and he has an ally; a resurrected Anck Su Namun. When Alex is captured, Rick, Evelyn, her brother Jonathan, and their mystical magi Ardeth, head off to Africa . . . in a dirigible to rescue him and save the world while Evelyn recalls her past life experience as Princess Nefertiri, Anck Su Namun's rival and witness to her and Imhotep's greatest crime!

Yes, The Mummy Returns has it all; mummies, stylized dogmen Egyptian warriors, and a CG-version of "The Rock" grafted to a scorpion's body. Yes, this is what schlock is made of! The thing is, while watching the film, I sat and knew just how bad it was, a feeling that was crystallized the moment Dizzy and his dirigible first appeared on screen. But the story elements of past life experiences, resurrected mummies and the god-bound soon-to-be-reanimated Scorpion King are all so delightfully cliche that the film becomes a terrible move, but a truly great b-film. In fact, so many action adventure films these days seem to try for greatness, but The Mummy Returns seems to concede very early in the film that it will not be and decides to just be pretty mindless fun.

Outside the ridiculous plot elements, the aspect that is most devastating to the credibility of the flick are the special effects. In the prologue, the effects are impressive, with the dogmen overrunning the desert and the effects are realistic and cool. Apparently, the prologue left the film drastically overbudget and the mummy Imhotep suffers from the same lighting problems as in the first film, bluescreen shots are painfully obvious and many of the mummy warriors are simply laughable. But the cream of the b-film criteria crop is the eventual rise of the Scorpion King. Poor Dwayne Johnson barely appears in the final scenes, replaced as he is by a poorly animated version of himself that on my HD-TV was tragically unterrifying.

On the character front, The Mummy Returns divides itself remarkably well between the passe and the utterly campy. Indeed, anyone who has seen any action adventure film - but especially sequels with a child from the two lead protagonists from the first - know that the kid is going to get abducted. Yes, the viewer waits for Alex to get abducted and the only real surprise is that in the process neither Ardeth nor the boob Jonathan bite the dust. In this way, The Mummy Returns is cliche and obvious as Alex is soon abducted by Imhotep as part of the resurrected mummy's plans to take on the Scorpion King.

But what is campy and almost clever is that The Mummy Returns mixes this obvious bit with a character twisting that is actually interesting; that of the past life story. While Imhotep is resurrected in the traditional necromancy sense, Evelyn has flashes of a past life experience as Princess Nefertiri that she does not understand. These flashes increase and reveal more about the story of Anck Su Namun, who has been physically reborn as Meela Nais. This idea at least plays out in an interesting fashion in the movie as Meela assists Imhotep in his plans and the flashbacks give a real sense of backstory to Anck Su Namun and Nefertiri. The viewer is almost able to accept, then, when Evelyn and Meela square off to do battle while Rick takes on the Scorpion King, as something other than just women pairing off to fight. No, The Mummy Returns tends to keep things as fair as fights tend to be with the men of about the same build taking on one another while the dainty women beat each other extensively to a similar pulp.

The Mummy Returns returns Patricia Velasquez (Anck Su Namun), Oded Fehr (Ardeth), and John Hannah (Jonathan Carnahan) to the screen while effectively mixing in Freddie Boath (Alex). Boath plays best off Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, who is perhaps best known now for his role of Mr. Ecko on the second season of Lost (reviewed here!). Dwayne Johnson makes good use of his time in the prologue, but most of his late-film appearance has a clear digital rendering of the actor that he cannot take credit - or blame - for the performance. Sufficed to say, this is not his dramatic opus. But Arnold Vosloo's return as the menacing Imhotep seems much more developed and less monolithic than it did in the first film. Still, Vosloo gets quite a bit of mileage out of bugging his eyes out and yelling.

But the movie rests largely on Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz and Fraser shows up and plays Rick mostly the same way he did in The Mummy. But Weisz is given physical and emotional acting challenges to live up to and in The Mummy Returns she rises to the occasion. For sure, there are stunt actresses that do much of the work between Weisz and Velasquez, as Nefertiri and Anck Su Namun do battle, but the acting challenge comes in selling the coverage in those scenes that is clearly Weisz. Those moments bind the scenes and are perfect; Weisz makes the viewer believe it is truly her out of breath and in peril who we've seen doing all her character has been doing. At the same time, Weisz plays the befuddled librarian and archaeologist brilliantly and her character is a delight to watch.

The final installment (for now) is The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor. Alex O'Connell, now grown up a bit, is a young adventurer exploring ruins in China when he discovers a chamber of terra cotta warriors. When the cursed leader, the Chinese Emperor Han suddenly sprouts back to life, he continues the megalomaniacal quest to take over the world that he began before he was cursed and mummified. Undead and powerful, the Dragon Emperor and his legions of warriors - also reanimated by Alex's clumsiness - begin to illustrate a capacity for world domination and Alex flees in desperation to his father. Rick O'Connell, a noted archaeologist and adventurer, has experience with returning the dead to the undead and when Alex returns home to beg his help, he jumps into action.

Soon, the O'Connell family is all in China, hunting clues to stop the Dragon Emperor, while Han returns to the ways that got him cursed in the first place. The O'Connells take on a sorceress ally who has intimate knowledge of Han's curse and works to thwart him . . .

Where to start with the problems of The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor? It is plagued by moments that feel like it is utterly the same movie we have seen before in virtually every other action-adventure film ever produced. Indeed, there is nothing truly new in Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor and it comes through on all of the important levels of plot, character and acting and the supplemental front of special effects.

First, I have some respect for Eastern philosophy and for a movie taking place in China, the way maturity and age is revered is almost entirely lacking. For sure, the O'Connells employ a respectable woman whose powers only come from the wisdom of age (sort of), but the lack of respect illustrated between Alex and Rick is very American. Instead of having any sense of reverence for Rick's experience, Alex is reluctant and arrogant, defiant while requesting his aid. And Rick doesn't help things. He is characterized as somewhat buffoonish in too many parts. Sure, he looks good in a tuxedo and when he has to move, he has all of the choreographed grace of an action hero, but the character is otherwise dull. Indeed, the best elements of Rick are all characterized by his ability to move and movement does not equal character.

As one condemned to any number of movies this summer, I am getting sick of writers and directors who seem to work by that equation under the mistaken belief that those who watch movies will accept bland characters so long as they run, jump and shoot things. I do not.

The only thing less fortunate than Rick's characterization is that of the characters who accompany him. Evelyn lets off a number of wry comments and Alex seems dimly aware of the consequences of his actions early in the movie. Indeed, amid all of the forced family drama between Rick and Alex, one almost finds the rise of Han forgettable. And that type of conflict and bland acceptance that fathers and sons will not see eye-to-eye is anything but entertaining; indeed, we have seen it before. I am certain that there are any number of comparisons between the Indiana Jones films and the movies of The Mummy, but the truth is, that would be a false analogy. The Indiana Jones movies (especially the first one and, admittedly, even the latest cinematic outing) had some substance, some philosophy, something the movie wanted to say other than "hey, look at Harrison Ford run around with various costars!" Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor has nothing so smart as Nazis looking for a supernatural way to win the war and Indiana Jones fighting for freedom by recovering paranormal artifacts.

Moreover, Emperor Han is given nothing so glamorous as a reason for wanting to take over the world. World domination no longer satisfies the viewer for motivation; don't obsessive warlords realize yet that it is easy to take over the world, but impossible to keep control of it once you do?! Emperor Han seems to be bent on taking over the world and employing his seemingly invincible undead warriors simply by rote; it is what he did before, so he'll continue doing it now. The best villains have a reason and one that makes them seem more human. The reason the world isn't overrun by impractical jerks who are trying to take everything over is because it is not human nature to want to control everything (and fortunately for all of us, those who are most prepossessed toward the type of egomania needed to believe that their way is unquestionably the right and only way, tend to not get very far - usually Congress, where they are met by 534 people like them and accomplish nothing!). Watching The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor, then, is made all the less entertaining by the monolithically bad way Han is portrayed.

At least it does not challenge Jet Li to have to do much outside yell, fight and look menacing.

As for the special effects, they are able to cover up virtually everything, save the lousy acting. The performers do their best to look like they know what they are seeing when they end up in giant scenes filled with virtual characters, but there are many, many places where the characters seem detached from the world they supposedly occupy. This is an unforgivable sin in this day in age and Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor cheapens the serious movies that use effects to simply augment the good story. Here, the massive armies of undead are asked to carry the weight of the lousy script and they are crushed under that. Far too often, the special effects look like special effects and the real flesh and blood people only serve to remind the viewer of how unreal much of the rest of the movie actually is.

That said, I will admit that the dragon - even when improperly lit for the surroundings it occupies - does look pretty cool. Sadly, its presence does not justify the rest of the movie.

Brendan Fraser is saddled with the duty of selling the reality of The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor and unfortunately, through much of the film, he seems tired and bored of the role himself. For sure, his performance is different from, say, his role in Still Breathing (reviewed here!); there is nothing quirky or quiet in his performance. Instead, he is forceful, physical and he has a somewhat ridiculous obsession with screwing his face up to emote. Fraser might be an adept physical comedian, but at many points in Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor, the role does not call for that type of performance, yet that is what he gives.

The others range from adequate to terrible, from those who are comfortable working in environments opposite nothing and guessing (Jet Li) and those who seem stymied by how to act when the setting and adversaries are not present (Luke Ford). Much has been made about Maria Bello, who plays Evelyn. She apparently takes over the role from another actress and - because I have not seen those movies - I shall not comment on that. Bello does seem a little stiff though.

Some of that stiffness is hard to blame on Bello; she is given a role that is very much a sidekick and sharing that role with Ford. In other words, her stiffness might well come from being uncomfortable with having so little to do.

Sadly, by the end of these movies she is not alone; that is how the viewer feels.

On DVD, the movies come with commentary tracks and featurettes, largely focused on the special effects. They get decent participation from actors and producers for the interviews in them, but they are hardly enough to make them worth buying for those who were not grabbed by the source material.

For other trilogy or saga multipacks, please check out my reviews of:
The Lord Of The Rings Trilogy
Star Wars Saga
Back To The Future Trilogy


For other movie reviews, please visit my index page on the subject by clicking here!

© 2011, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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