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Mummy dearest

In 1932, when director Karl Freund wanted to scare the socks off the brave movie patrons who had come to see the original Universal Pictures production of The Mummy, he didn't have the miracle of state-of-the-art computer imagery to create his bogeyman. All he had was gauze--a lot of gauze. Well...and Boris Karloff.

Though Stephen Sommers' The Mummy is ostensibly a remake of Freund's horror classic, this hokey but immensely likable picture doesn't waste much time trying for shock effects; rather, it spends most of its $80 million budget on broad yucks and action-adventure thrills. The movie begins handsomely with a seven-minute prologue set in 1290 B.C. in the Egyptian city of Thebes. In it, the pharaoh discovers an illicit affair between his mistress and the evil high priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), prompting Pharaoh to sentence the priest to be mummified alive and buried in Hamunaptra, the City of the Dead, where he will remain, undead, throughout all eternity.

For roughly 3,000 years, the grave of Imhotep remains undisturbed. Then, in 1926, an American treasure hunter and soldier of fortune named Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) teams up with Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), a clumsy but fetching British Egyptologist, and her sticky-fingered brother (a sly John Hannah) to find the tomb.

But our heroes aren't alone in their quest. While en route to the ancient lost city, they learn that a team of greedy Americans--led by an equal-opportunity scoundrel named Beni (a brilliantly sleazy Kevin J. O'Connor)--also has its sights set on the treasures of Hamunaptra. Perhaps it is this race for the gold that provides the motive for the film's breakneck pace. On the other hand, a case could be made that this year's mummy model is a remake of the Karloff original in name alone. Certainly, the inspiration for Fraser's O'Connell came not from the 1930s, but from the early 1980s, and not from Egypt, but from Indiana--Indiana Jones, but of course.

Still, whether we see the character as an homage or a rip-off, Fraser has become such a skilled comic performer, it doesn't take long for him to lay claim to the character. Few performers have taken a stranger path to stardom. (Encino Man and George of the Jungle were not able stops along the way.) And fewer still have emerged with such unique gifts--the ability to display confidence with both verbal quips and physical slapstick, or demonstrate the ability to play romantic roles without allowing sex appeal to be compromised by comedy. In this, Fraser is well-partnered by Weisz, who turns out to be a surprisingly nimble comedienne in her own right, with her own brand of appealing goofiness.

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Overall, the movie has no shortage of obvious virtues. Its visual effects are stunning, and Sommers deserves special credit for not allowing them to overwhelm the film's human relationships. Though the picture moves briskly, Sommers still finds room for nuance and detail. As it works out, the picture has a little something for everyone--romance, sex appeal, a sense of humor, exotic locales, skilled ensemble work, and jaw-dropping effects. There is even a kind of loopy mysticism, which mixes well with the other hokey pleasures of the film. The only thing missing is that intangible something that might pull all of the various elements together and elevate the film into something truly memorable.

In one scene, Imhotep attempts to conjure up the soul of his lost love. Thanks to those computers, he's able to pull off such a feat, but it seems so mundane, an everyday sort of miracle. Even with so much in its favor, The Mummy seems to fall all too easily into that category. If only generating a soul for the film itself were so easy.

The Mummy.
Written and directed by Stephen Sommers. Starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, and Arnold Vosloo. Now playing.

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