When the first Mummy film came out nearly a decade ago, many film fans approached it with a sense of deep trepidation. It was, after all, being billed as a remake of the 1932 Boris Karloff classic. It’s one of those sacred film texts, almost up there with Citizen Kane and Casablanca, that many film buffs felt should never be remade. After all, the track record of remakes of 1930s horror movies had not been great up to that time. The 1976 remake of 1933’s King Kong was widely considered not just an appalling travesty, but the likely outcome of any attempt to update a classic. Chuck on top of that, the obvious Indiana Jones rip-off that was Brendan Fraser’s tomb raiding character, and all the signs pointed to The Mummy being an expensive and embarrassing dud.
Sometimes, however, Hollywood comes good against the odds. Thanks to a combination of Fraser’s easy charm, some well-judged one-liners, decent special effects, a gripping plot and finely-tuned supporting cast, The Mummy ended up being one of the hits of the summer of ’99. Critics – film buffs all, and so more likely to go into screenings with negative preconceptions – may have had mixed opinions, but the public loved it. It swiftly spawned a sequel, 2001’s The Mummy Returns, which also did well at the box office, in turn prompting the less well-received spin-off The Scorpion King in 2002 – which has its own sequel (well, prequel) coming out direct to DVD this month.
Yet, where The Mummy had a feel of effortlessness and easy pacing about it, The Mummy Returns seemed to be trying a bit too hard, being both longer than the original and more action-packed – leaving little room for the character development and banter that made the first film so engaging. In turn, The Scorpion King seemed to jettison all attempts at character building in favour of a full-on action-fest, personified by its choice of lead actor, The Rock – then still known only for his TV wrestling rather than his acting skills – and its apparent “borrowing” of plot points from the early eighties Arnold Schwarzenegger action/fantasy classic Conan the Barbarian.
And so the franchise seemed to fizzle out, with even the spin-off childrens’ cartoon series only lasting for 25 episodes before being ditched. Despite being successfully resurrected in 1999, The Mummy seemed to have been put back under wraps and sent back to its tomb.
But now, six years on – and hot on the heels of the Indiana Jones revival – The Mummy has been awakened once more. This time, however, having exhausted everyone’s patience with Egypt, the team have taken a leaf out of Indy’s book and relocated – to China. The mummy in question, being that of the first Emperor and played (in a perfect piece of casting) by kung-fu hero Jet Li. Cue all sorts of Oriental mysticism and computer-generated action as Brendan Fraser once more battles the undead, aided by John Hannah as the bumbling sidekick. The less said about the odd decision to give Fraser a teenage son this time, or to re-cast Rachel Weisz’s character when she proved unavailable rather than simply write her out, the better. Nonetheless, this is a far more successful revival than most could have hoped for – especially coming as it does from the director who brought us such braindead actioners as The Fast and the Furious and xXx – and is arguably a far better sequel than The Mummy Returns. As the cliché goes, if you liked that, then you’ll love this.