Stephen Sommers, returning as writer/director for the follow-up to his 1999 hit "The Mummy," has clearly done his sequel homework. With "The Mummy Returns" (IMDb listing) Sommers obeys all the rules of second films. This sequel is bigger, louder, and faster than the original.
Now that I've inadvertently given the "Mummy" marketing department a gankable review byte for newspaper ads, the bad news is that "The Mummy Returns" does, in fact, follow all the rules of second films, including the rules that state that all sequels must be more complicated and less charming than their predecessors.
In the first film, Sommers built the plot around a simple treasure hunt that became not-so-simple when a wee screwup brought a mummy back from the dead. With "The Mummy Returns" Sommers spends a lot more time braiding story threads. This film is a complicated mix of battles, curses, and quests that begins when the first film's villain, Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), is brought back to life by his inexplicably reanimated love Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velazquez).
All this resurrection is taking place in 1933eight years after the first film's eventsand '33 just happens to be the Egyptian year of the scorpion. Sometime soon, the multi-millennium slumber of the powerful Scorpion King (The Rock) will come to an end, thereby offering a chance for a person or creature to slay the King and gain control of his massive undead army. The plan is to bring Imhotep back to life so he can slay the King, grab the army, and commence smiting anyone and anything that gets in his way.
The two individuals topping Imhotep's "To Smite" list are Rick and Evelyn (Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz), the pesky humans who sent the angry mummy back to the underworld in the first film. Now married and parents to an 8 year-old-son, the adventurous couple have their idyllic existence complicated when both discover direct, past-life connections to the ancient world. Rick bears the mark of the Maji, a mysterious sect of God's warriors, while Evelyn learns through visions that her soul once inhabited the ancient body of Nefertiti, daughter of the Pharaoh slain by Imhotep and Anck-Su-Namun. Evelyn's visions imbue her with Nefertiti's fighting skills, which come in handy during the battle-happy third act.
Still with me?
Director Sommers is upping the ante with this sequel, and to his credit the story actually works despite its over-complication. What's unfortunate is that the extra bombast dims the spark that made the first film so much fun.
Fraser and Weisz are hindered by the action, unable to inject many of the traits their characters possessed in the original. An argument can be made that Fraser's rogue adventurer has been tamed by marriage and Weisz' ditzy scholar has gotten savvier over the years, but the interplay between the rogue and the ditz was a nice addition to "The Mummy." Because Sommers gave us such likeable characters in the beginning, the omission of their key traits is noticeable in the sequel.
Speaking of characters, much has been made about the film debut of wrestling star The Rock. As you could have guessed, the hype is unfounded, but only because The Rock is on-screen for less than 10 minutes (Judi Dench won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for less than 10 minutes of work in "Shakespeare in Love," but I don't see any nominations in The Rock's near future). When we do see our wrestling buddy he's usually grunting, fighting, or scuttling around on the body of a giant scorpion (don't ask). Given the paltry Rock offerings in "The Mummy Returns," a full exhibition of his skills will have to wait until his starring turn in the upcoming "Mummy" spinoff "The Scorpion King" hits theatres next year.
Character flaws aside, it's important to remember that "The Mummy Returns" is a summer movie, and being such it seeks to be nothing more than a two-hour thrill ride. On this front, "The Mummy Returns" works, especially when the characters are engaged in various forms of battle. The fight scenes don't approach the grace of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," but they've got an infectious energy. During these moments, and there are plenty to choose from, "The Mummy Returns" strikes at the essence of a big-budget blockbuster. It's overwhelming, it's exciting, and it's giddy, stupid fun.
Filmfodder Grade: B