Brendan Fraser The Mummy Returns (Credit Universal Studios)
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Brendan Fraser in The Mummy Returns (Credit: Universal)

Brendan Fraser in The Mummy: The hottest action hero of the '90s

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May 8, 2019, 1:01 PM EDT

For almost 40 years, Hollywood's idea of heroism has been defined by Indiana Jones, the globe-trotting archaeologist with a penchant for cracking a bullwhip, saving the girl, and acquiring the most mysterious objects of historical importance. Everyone from Lara Croft to Nathan Drake to Peter Quill and beyond can lay claim to being the heroic descendants of Dr. Jones, but few have managed to nail the specifics of what made him so appealing. There are many devilish rogues on the big screen, but there’s something about Harrison Ford’s that remains unique in a sea of copycats.

Of course, that character and that type Ford became so well known for playing is one that’s come with many years of critique. Indy is an amazing hero and always the hottest guy in the room at any given time, but he’s also an absolute jerk, the alpha who delights in watching women swoon at his feet even as he protests their presence in his life. One can only take that trope so far before audiences, but particularly women, start to get sick of it. So, how do you take the most enthralling aspects of that character and make it into something unignorably charismatic?

Enter Rick O’Connell.

While Stephen Sommers' 1999 film The Mummy is ostensibly a remake of the 1931 classic Universal monster movie, it's more blatantly a homage to Indiana Jones and the old adventure serials that inspired the character in the first place. Universal was keen to try and revive the monster movies that made them an iconic studio during Hollywood's golden age, and they knew The Mummy had the potential to do that. They went to the biggest stars of the time when casting the lead — Tom Cruise was offered the role, as were Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck. Of course, they all turned it down, and in came Brendan Fraser.

The Mummy Bullets gif

Credit: Giphy

By the end of the '90s, Brendan Fraser had built up a solid filmography that pitted his on-screen persona as somewhere between Jim Carrey and Errol Flynn. In films like George of the Jungle and Blast from the Past, he balanced guileless charm with slapstick bravado, revealing himself to be a gifted physical comedian as well as the kind of charming leading man that was, to put it bluntly, tailor-made for the female gaze. There were more serious films in his back-catalog, such as Gods and Monsters and The Passion of Darkly Noon, but the Fraser most audiences saw was one who could charm the hell out of you mid-pratfall.

In that sense, he is perfectly cast as Rick O'Connell, the American rogue who guides librarian Evie Carnahan and her drunken brother Jonathan through the Egyptian desert to the mythic lost city of Hamunaptra. O’Connell is a hero straight out of a swashbuckling 1930s epic, only without the rampant misogyny. He may be the leading man of this story and Fraser’s name the most prominent on the poster, but both are aware that the real hero of The Mummy is Evie, as played by Rachel Weisz. Sure, Rick saves Evie now and then, but these are no acts of pompous chivalry, and she is so clearly the brains of the operation. When Evie excitedly describes what happens during mummification, O’Connell listens on with eagerness and queasiness, his interest in Evie evident throughout, even when she doesn’t notice it herself.

A key feature of O’Connell that stops him from being yet another strutting peacock laying it out on the table for a measuring contest is his unabashed goofiness. He's basically a comic book character, saving the day but always doing so with this bemused look on his face as if he can't figure out how the hell he got there in the first place. This is something that Harrison Ford always benefitted from in his best hero roles. Everyone is quick to forget how much of a dork Han Solo is, and Indiana Jones, despite his cocksure nature, is still a dweeby professor whose work attire consists of a bow tie. Rick O’Connell runs like Phoebe from Friends and, when confronted with a screaming undead mummy who plans to consume the earth, he screams back. He never seems above it all or nonplussed by the sheer chaos of what’s happening. This is a guy whose cartoonish panic feels more realistic to the situation than a hundred stoic alpha dudes toting giant guns.

The Mummy Scream

Credit: Giphy

What makes Rick O’Connell such an appealing action and romantic hero is the balance between the fantasy of being swept off your feet by a handsome man and the unbridled silliness of running away from the undead while cracking jokes. This isn’t a man obsessed with showing off how uber-masculine he is to the other flexing dudes in the room, and he doesn’t view his love interest as a prize. She’s just a fascinating, intelligent and beautiful woman he is enthralled by and is happy to be by her side, something that is emphasized further in the sequel, The Mummy Returns. She’s the brains and Rick is only too happy to be the goofy brawn. He goes from being the leading man to one half of a sturdy partnership, a committed relationship that spans three movies (let’s just pretend Evie was never recast in the third one).

We now live in the Marvel age and that heroic archetype Brendan Fraser embodied so thoroughly in the ‘90s feels commonplace in today’s blockbusters. Star-Lord may think he’s Indiana Jones but he’s definitely more Rick O’Connell, and Thor: Ragnarok feels like a direct descendant of that Fraser era. Audiences are bored with that retrograde alpha hero and yearn for something to puncture that self-seriousness. In that regard, Rick O’Connell feels so ahead of his time.

After a tough few years — including injuries, depression and alleged sexual assault — Brendan Fraser has returned to the limelight in a series of TV roles, including as the voice of Robotman in the DC Universe series Doom Patrol. Having him back in film and television is a delightful reminder of what a refreshing and wholly appealing on-screen presence he continues to be. Still, it’s Rick O’Connell who we return to, and for good reason. Many may have tried but none could best him as our sexiest action hero of the ‘90s.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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