Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough, as the fella once said, and apparently the same is true for mummy movies. I'm old enough to remember when the 1999 version of The Mummy was new, at which point it was greeted without much critical enthusiasm (I think Ebert was the only big-name critic who strongly supported the film), and with a pretty substantial amount of box office success. The latter, I guess, is what's allowed the film to be reclaimed by the internet as a classic action-adventure, which is certainly the reputation it seems to have, based on the way it's been talked about in light of the 2017 Mummy that's not really a remake so much as a fantasia on the same themes.
So... okay, then, I guess. I don't fucking understand it. The Mummy struck me as clunky and noisy and dumb in '99, and it strikes me the same way 18 years later, with the caveat that I think I'm actually more impressed by the CGI effects now than I was then; they've aged pretty spectacularly well, relative to some of the other films from that era that seemed very cool looking at the time. It is, at its best, a film that is considerably worse at Raiders of the Lost Ark in doing many of the same things, with the gormless Brendan Fraser standing in as a Wonder Bread simulacrum of Harrison Ford. It is not completely charmless, though virtually all of its charms are so blatantly secondhand that I'm not sure why anybody would bother.
The film began life when some Universal executive decided that time was ripe to mount a remake of the studio's 1932 classic The Mummy (my pick for the best 1930s Universal horror movie that didn't feature Dr. Frankenstein), and initially, at least, it was going to follow the original in being a horror movie. No less than Clive Barker was working with the studio for a while, followed by Joe Dante and George A. Romero, but none of these well-tested horror directors could crack the project. It took the insight of Stephen Sommers, then in production on that classic of classics, Deep Rising, who suggested that instead of a low-budget horror-romance, the studio needed to spend some real money on a big summer FX tentpole. And there you have it.
Though Sommers, unlike everybody who passed through the project before him, was the first one to propose breaking away from the horror genre (horror elements remain in the finished film, but they are somewhat vestigial), he was also the first one to suggest a story that by and large really did resemble the '32 Mummy in a lot of details, only amped up significantly. So we're back in the Egypt of 1923, when European archaeologists were swarming over the country like flies, looking for well-preserved corpses sitting in piles of treasure. Two of these are the Carnahan siblings, Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and Jonathan (John Hannah), children of an eminent Egyptologist. Jonathan has managed to appropriate a map from Rick O'Connell (Fraser), a Legionnaire who stumbled across the lost ancient city of Hamunaptra in the film's second scene, before ending up in prison. The Carnahans agree to help him out if he'll take them into the desert to find Hamunaptra, which has been spoken off in discredited legends as the site of some of the greatest treasure of the pharaonic ages. We know better: in the film's first scene, we saw the 13th Century BCE priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) struck with a particularly dire curse for the crime of dallying with the pharaoh's mistress, Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez), the kind that leaves him in undying torment as his body withers away in his lost tomb. And given our expectations for a film titled The Mummy, we know that from the second the ambitious, adventurous Evelyn learns of a map to Hamunaptra, it's just a matter of waiting until Imhotep is brought back to the world of the living, ready to wreak his mummified revenge.
And by "a matter of waiting", I mean waiting. The 125-minute film is almost exactly half-way over by the time Imhotep's sarcophagus is cracked open, and there's about a half-hour to spare once the film enters its endgame, which means we get a whole 34 minutes of action involving the spectral killer mummy-man (which is almost certainly less time than the 1932 film dedicated to same stretch, and it was only 73 minutes start to finish). I consider this imbalance to be somewhat questionable, though not nearly as frustrating as the sheer quantity of nothing that goes into that opening 62 minutes. If a Raiders knock-off this most undeniably is, then it is a Raiders knock-off written by a man who's big problem with that 1981 masterpiece was that it spent far too little time exploring the ins and outs of the dig site where Indiana Jones was outracing the Nazis. A solid quarter of the movie is spent on... that. We have, on one hand, Evelyn, Rick, and Jonathan; we have, on the other, Dr. Allen Chamberlain (Jonathan Hyde), the rough-and-tumble Americans Henderson (Stephen Dunham), Daniels (Corey Johnson), and Burns (Tuc Watkins), and Rick's former partner Beni Gabor (Kevin J. O'Connor). We have, on the third hand, a group of Egyptian warriors led by Ardeth Bey (Oded Fehr), warning the Europeans to get the hell away from Hamunaptra, but they only come around for one scene. Otherwise, the film just spins and spins...
Pacing is a chronic problem for The Mummy; the lumbering intro shifts into a crazily sped-up middle that burns through plot points (the most glaring example: the kooky British pilot Winston Havlock (Bernard Fox), who shows up, becomes a major character, and dies, all in the span of about six minutes), and ends at a climax that is, I should be fair, just right. I kind of hate how good the last 20 minutes of The Mummy are, in fact, because it proves that Sommers know what he was doing, he just didn't bother doing it. The silly slapstick horror is practically Raimiesque compared to the clumsiness of basically everything else, with Bob Ducsay's editing madly over-chopping the action into little fragments of movement, hoping to achieve through visual chaos a degree of kinesis not found in the action itself (this was a rather new aesthetic in '99, mostly only being practiced in the films of the relatively new director Michael Bay). Basically the only time the cutting slows enough to let us absorb the visuals is whenever Sommers has a big special effect to show off; and I'm not made of stone, I can admit that the effects in The Mummy have a certain cool ghost-story-on-speed quality (the iconic face in the sandstorm, however, looks sort of terrible 18 years on). And I will also allow that the transition from ancient Egypt to the 20th Century, by means of the high-speed digital erosion of a jackal statue, is an awfully elegant, visually expressive way of achieving at least that one little bit of exposition.
Since I'm being nice, I have a couple other points to mention. One of these is Jerry Goldsmith's score, which is certainly not free of clichés and Orientalisms, though it boasts a hell of a good motif in the form of the main theme, which tends to accompany Evelyn throughout the movie, with the sweeping exoticised bombast of a really great Maurice Jarre score. The music does rather more to connect The Mummy to the old-fashioned swashbucklers it obviously admires than anything in the script or the overall tone, which is pure Late '90s Popcorn Boilerplate. I've also got not a single word to say against Weisz, who broke out with this very movie, and deserved to. There's a sparkling nerdiness to her portrayal of a bookish archaeology theorist; she exudes pure glee at the adventures laid out before her, glee at the terrifying things she encounters, and glee at the wonders of translating ancient text. "I am a librarian!" she declares at one point, and by God, no librarian was ever prouder; later, when she curtly corrects Beni's mangled Egyptian, it's as perfectly-timed and enjoyable haughty as anything from the old screwball comedians that Weisz is channeling, if perhaps accidentally. She practically gives the film a whole point just from the sheer joy of her presence.
Taking that point right back again, the film boasts some of the most odious Odious Comic Relief in '90s cinema: the wacky Jonathan is no prize, and the Americans are even worse, but there's no question that Beni represents something close to the nadir of screen comedy: between the racial minstrelsy, the anachronistically mumbly, slacker tenor of his dialogue, and O'Connor's tendency to turn everything into a petulant whine, there's not one solitary thing about the character that works. Besides Weisz, there's not much in the way of good acting, to be sure; Vosloo has menacing presence to spare, but he's not actually in very much of the movie, even if we include those scenes where he's played by a computer.
Tight, exciting plotting; engaging characters both distinct and archetypal, whose travails we care about; you can lack one (and of course better to have both, e.g. Raiders) but without either, I can't imagine what's left to drive your adventure movie, and The Mummy only has half of one of them (I'd watch a film where Weisz's Evelyn was paired with a suitable co-lead, and not the droopy Fraser, seven days of the week). It's screechy, bloated, and only intermittently interesting to look at, either because yellow sand deserts with deep blue skies are inherently beautiful, or because a spooky image managed to clamber into this non-horror horror film. Mostly, it's just loud and dull, no so viciously incoherent as a Michael Bay film nor as as irredeemably dumb as a Roland Emmerich, but in all other ways The Mummy proves to be an action film of the late '90s in the very worst sense.