Thursday, October 27, 2011

So Bad It's Worth Watching, The Mummy Returns Is A Camp/MST3000 Must See!

The Good: Sense of movement/pacing, Acting in general, Moments of concept
The Bad: Ridiculous special effects, Light on character development
The Basics: When The Mummy Returns, the viewer is presented with such a preposterous movie that it appears Stephen Sommers is actually trying to write a great b-rate flick!

It is a rare thing that I step outside my reviewer's professionalism and actually recommend a film for reasons other than the concept that one should see it because it is a vital work or entertaining or the whatnot. I was not, for example, impressed by The Mummy (reviewed here!) but the longer I endured The Mummy Returns, the more I enjoyed it. Yes, unlike the first film in The Mummy movies - or the most recent installment The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor - The Mummy Returns is just plain, consistently, fun. The Mummy went comedic for too long before becoming an annoying overly-telegraphed action adventure, leaving the viewer feeling like they were watching a farce, but The Mummy Returns balances the comedy and action adventure far better than the first.

But more than that, The Mummy Returns is pretty ridiculous from the very start. The prologue, which explains the tale of the Scorpion King is a fairly insulting exposition that introduces the viewer to a character played by Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. Like the prologue to the first movie, the viewer can see what is being told as part of the voice-over, which left me immediately feeling like this was going to be a substandard rehash of an already average film. But then the movie filled up with past lives (implied in the first, made explicit here), hot air balloons, and special effects that are so deliciously campy, it is hard not to watch, turn off the brain and relentlessly mock. So, yes, The Mummy Returns is an average film, but it is worth picking up for a night with your funniest, most sarcastic friends because it has such a beautiful camp quality to it that it has to be seen to be believed. Yes, it's so bad it should be watched!

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.

And truth be told, The Mummy is simply fun and worth watching, if for no other reason than it it imaginative and fun . . . even just for "Mystery Science Theater 3000" fare, it is hard to ask for more sometimes.

For other works with Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, be sure to visit my reviews of:
The Other Guys
The Tooth Fairy
Planet 51
Get Smart
Southland Tales


For other movie reviews, please be sure to visit my index page by clicking here!

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

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