The Mummy Returns is the benchmark for mummy action movies

Contributed by
Jun 9, 2017

WARNING: SPOILERS for The Mummy (2017) herein.

Well, it's happened: The Dark Universe has darkened our collective doorways. And it's ... yup. It's here all right. Boy, howdy.

And that's why today we'll be talking about ... 2001's The Mummy Returns.

Why are we talking about a 16-year-old film and not The Mummy 2017 in our midst? Well, that movie is currently hovering around an 18% rating on ye olde Tomatoes du Rotten. Coincidentally, only about 18% of The Mummy is about ... The Mummy. Yeah. So, I thought a bit of perspective might help? Look at the last time a mummy was made box-office flesh?

The Mummy Returns doesn't exactly have a hot tomato rating itself; only 47%, and yet, other than the CGI that looked dated even upon release, it's aged surprisingly well. It also made $433 million off less than a $100 million budget in 2001, which is nothing to sneeze at. Especially since that movie did not have a Tom Cruise on which to to rest its laurels.

If we're going by just this first movie in the Dark Universe so far, it seems like these are going to be action-heavy films, for better or worse. Given that, this is as good a time as any to look back at The Mummy Returns, a movie high on the action, and talk about the stuff that works and the stuff that doesn't.

First, let's get through the stuff that doesn't work, because it's much shorter list.

KIDS AND CGI

2001's The Mummy Returns picks up some years after the original film. It has one misstep right out of the gate: Alex. Yes, for some reason, writer/director Stephen Sommers decided it was time for a kid sidekick in the form of Rick and Evelyn's son. I mean ... I guess Short Round was not the worst thing about Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, but man, is that not a movie from which to take positive lessons.

On the other hand, Alex could have been a much worse kid sidekick? One of the things I like most about The Mummy Returns is that it's a fun adventure movie tone-wise pretty much throughout. And there's an entire section of the film where Alex gets kidnapped by the mummy, but instead of things getting really dire, there's this fun back-and-forth between Alex and one of the mummy's henchmen, Lock-Nah. Lock-Nah is this really grim-seeming character right up until Alex becomes his responsibility to watch over, at which point they become this almost schlemiel/schlimazel duo.

The point is this: One of The Mummy Returns' immediately identifiable weaknesses still manages to work for it.

Just to wrap up the bad: Yes, the CGI Dwayne Johnson looks terrible. Bad. Not good. PlayStation graphics on my old Hitachi TV set from 1985. What are ya gonna do, my babies? 2001 was a different time. Plenty of movies have CGI that won't age well. 2017's The Mummy, for example. Really, the only takeaway for that is: Less is More. Don't go crazy on your CGI if you don't have to. You probably don't have to.

But now ... let's talk about why The Mummy Returns is so great!

ACTION

First of all, the action pieces are tremendously entertaining and off-the-wall. Brendan Fraser's Rick O'Connell basically enters fight scenes by catching daggers thrown at his face and then throwing them back at everyone else's face. And The Mummy Returns is wise enough to make sure that John Hannah's Jonathan is there to be bumbling along the way. Think of him as a reason for the audience to believe that the movie is in on the joke of just how impossible these action set pieces are.

We'll talk more about this later, but Rachel Weisz's Evelyn Carnahan gets a huge upgrade from 1999's The Mummy. In that movie, she is largely relegated to damsel, but in this movie she is as much of an action star as Brendan Fraser. I really appreciated that the main duo stand on largely equal footing here. O'Connell is a little better at fighting, but Evelyn is still smarter. And, damn, Rachel Weisz got in some kind of shape for this movie, man. It's like she hit the gym every day for two years and they rewrote Evelyn because, damn, girl, you earned it.

Even Alex gets a solid train sequence in which he outwits the baddies and gets away. Jonathan, too, gets to briefly play hero. Every actor in general is on top of their physical game. And it's fun! That's the big headline you'll see me repeat over and over again. These action scenes aren't drab or overly intense: They are thrilling, funny, and they move the plot forward. Which, for my money, is what an action scene in an adventure movie is is supposed to do.

THE ROCK

This is a small positive, since Dwayne Johnson is barely in The Mummy Returns, but massive props to the casting folks for being the first Hollywood movie people to see that Johnson was going to be a massive star in the years to come. The Mummy Returns is Johnson's first major movie role, and even though he has no lines, he's still more engaging and charismatic than most characters in action movies these days.

I think the real takeaway is that The Mummy Returns took a smart gamble on someone who had previously worked well in another medium: wrestling. If anything, 2017's The Mummy also got this right, since Sofia Boutella is still a relative newcomer who started out being a dancer, not an actor. My hope for the Dark Universe, as they press on with casting these big Hollywood names, is that they take calculated risks with new folks who might only be known for something else (or aren't even known at all). It worked with The Rock, it worked with Boutella -- it's the kind of calculated gamble worth taking.

ANYTHING YOU CAN DO

One of the things that bugged me about 2017's The Mummy was that, even though there was all this hype about the mummy being a woman this time (it's technically been done before, both by Hammer AND Universal themselves, by the way), Sofia Boutella doesn't get much to do. Halfway through the movie she's locked up and The Mummy stops being a mummy movie and becomes a Russell Crowe movie. Likewise, Annabelle Wallis' character Jenny winds up being nothing more than a glorified cheerleader for Cruise's Nick Morton. In fact, 2017's The Mummy is kind of a movie about two women who desperately want a piece of Tom Cruise. Not, uh ... not great. Not great.

Compare that with 2001's The Mummy Returns, wherein there are two major women roles: Evelyn and Meela/Anck-Su-Namun, who both have their own agendas and who both get their own sweet fight scenes. Yes, both Evelyn and Meela are descendants of previous Egyptian women who have a destiny they feel somewhat compelled to follow, but they're guided, not ruled, by those destinies. Both women make choices and never feel like they are entirely playing servant to the men in their lives.

And, for my money, the fights between Evelyn and Meela are the best in the whole movie. For all the big CGI sequences (which hinder more than help, in my opinion), two women duking it out for the fate of the future not only looks cool but is also a lot more exciting than a thousand CGI mummies running all over the place.

The Mummy Returns was ahead of the curve on women action stars to the point that it almost feels like everyone else has only really started catching up in the last few years. Hopefully Universal's new Bride of Frankenstein, should it have action scenes in it (it probably will), can learn from The Mummy Returns.

EVERYONE'S A CHOSEN ONE

I don't know if it was supposed to be a joke or if it was meant to be taken seriously, but almost every major player in The Mummy Returns has a big ol' destiny: Alex was destined to wear the Scorpion King's cursed bracelet; Evelyn is a descendent of an Egyptian warrior and is destined to continue her fight; Meela is the reincarnation of Anck-Su-Namun; O'Connell turns out to be part of a family dedicated to protecting Egyptian myths and legends; and of course the mummies have legends all their own.

You know how in The Incredibles, Syndrome says that when everyone is special, no one is? Well, in the case of The Mummy Returns, I actually kind of see that as an unexpected benefit. If everyone has a destiny of some sort, then no one is automatically pushed to the front and expected to outshine everyone else. It's almost similar, in a way, to Harry Potter, who is supposedly this special child all the way through the story but it ends up that Longbottom could've been that kid, too.

2017's The Mummy really gets wrapped up in this idea that Tom Cruise's character is cursed, and then the whole narrative is driven around him specifically. I think the beauty of Universal Monsters as a concept is that there's a lot of opportunity for big stories for almost every character. The Mummy Returns goes all the way over the top with it in a way that can be dramatic and also funny. I think being self-aware of this with these Universal properties is essential in making them work.

THE FUN OF MONSTERS V. MONSTERS

I feel like the point of this is nestled throughout each section, but I think, especially with Universal properties like The Mummy, the thing The Mummy Returns got most right was its intention to create a story that's thrilling and mostly upbeat. Maybe Frankenstein and the Wolf Man won't go in that direction, but frankly there aren't enough Indiana Jones-type movies in the world, and The Mummy Returns was maybe Universal's best attempt to bring back the adventure genre. There's airships flying away from sandstorms, fights on trains and flashbacks to ancient times.

Did I mention mummy vs. mummy? I mean ... dude: One of the best parts of Universal Monster movies is when the monsters fight each other. Remember how dour Batman v Superman was? That's the #1 thing The Mummy Returns didn't do. One ancient mummy versus another ancient mummy should be wild, exciting and a little bit funny. 2017's The Mummy already had this bit where Tom Cruise and (spoilers) Russell Crowe go toe-to-toe a bit, and it was actually one of the few fun scenes in the movie. It wasn't about the mummy, but it was fun! Also (extra spoilers) the Book of the Dead from the 1999 The Mummy franchise makes an appearance, so maybe Fraser and Co. could come back? Please?

I would say that, of the 21st-century action adventure movies, The Mummy Returns stands head and shoulders above most. It's fun, it's thrilling, you don't have to be a dude to get a cool fight scene ... even the kid sidekick isn't half bad. So if you watched 2017's The Mummy and were disappointed, I would say go back and re-watch The Mummy Returns. And the 1999 The Mummy, too, while you're at it.

Just don't watch Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.