The Mummy Returns (2001) – Directed by Stephen Sommers – Starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Freddie Boath, Oded Fehr, Arnold Vosloo, Patricia Velásquez, Alun Armstrong, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Shaun Parkes, and Dwayne Johnson.
It is to the credit of Stephen Sommers, Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, Oded Fehr, John Hannah, and Arnold Vosloo that THE MUMMY RETURNS retreads so many aspects of THE MUMMY and yet remains so highly enjoyable.
Without question, RETURNS sacrifices character development for pyrotechnics, and without question, Rick and Evelyn O’Connell (Fraser and Weisz), Evey’s brother Jonathan (Hannah), and Ardeth Bay (Fehr), are back to redo some of their classic bits, but things have changed just enough in the status of the characters that most of the film still feels fresh and fun. Evey is now full of confidence, and Rick is a bit more cautious.
As their adventure opens, they’re excavating a sight in Thebes. They find the Bracelet of Anubis, which looks like a big honking gold scorpion. We know from the prologue that this object symbolizes the Scorpion King (Dwayne Johnson, back when he was still paying Vince McMahon to call himself “The Rock”) and we know from the people who show up ready to kill the O’Connells for it that it’s valuable for more than being shiny and pretty. These lackeys fail (there’s three of them and they serve as kind of an evil version of the three American cowboys in THE MUMMY) and the O’Connells return home to their big, fancy London estate with the bracelet.
There’s also a new addition to the family this time around in their son, Alex (Freddie Boath), a pre-teen kid who’s equal parts brilliant and bratty.
When I saw they’d added a kid, I had that same, “Ugh” reaction I always have when a kid gets added to the cast of a movie or show. Kids generally get in the way and muck things up, but just as my doubt in THE MUMMY was unwarranted, so was my doubt in Alex O’Connell, who proves to be one of the very best in any sequel. Alex is full of attitude, but it’s completely tempered by a sense of joy at the life he’s getting a chance to lead. He’s brilliant enough that when his dad scolds him for not waiting at the temple entrance, and tells him to “go build a better mousetrap,” Alex actually goes back to the entrance and builds a mousetrap.
Alex is insatiably curious, and so when they return to London, he can’t wait to crack open the chest that holds the Bracelet of Anubis and pop the scorpion on his wrist. When he does, he starts the clock ticking on the return of the Scorpion King, and Alex has seven days to reach the pyramid in the oasis of Ahm Shere. I’m sure this would have made a nice, quiet family trip, but the bad guys show up and kidnap Alex and steal him away.
Who are the bad guys, exactly? Well, there’s a couple layers of lackeys at play here. First, we’ve got those three henchmen. Next up the ladder is Baltus Hafez (Alun Armstrong), the curator of the British Museum that’s wanted to hire Evey, bad-ass Lock-Nah (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Mela Nais (Patricia Velásquez), who looks exactly like Imhotep’s lover, Anck-Su-Namun. (When Imhotep comes back, he says she’s the physical reincarnation of Anck-Su-Namun, and then later he brings her soul back to complete the reincarnation.) These three want to raise Imhotep (Vosloo) from the dead so he can defeat the Scorpion King, and they can take control of the Army of Anubis and conquer whatever it is they want to conquer. The world, probably.
Making Alex such a smart, capable kid saves the film from a lot of unnecessary melodrama. Rick and Evey are certainly concerned about Alex’s well being, but they know he’s able to take care of himself and, as Ardeth points out, the bad guys won’t kill him until he’s led them to Ahm Shere. Alex’s strength of character and the bad guy’s plan combine to let us have our fun, rollicking adventure, and as much fun as it is to see Evey and Rick in action again, the real fun in this movie is watching Alex’s exchanges with Imhotep, Anck-Su-Namun, and Lock-Nah.
Lock-Nah serves as Alex’s primary babysitter on the trip to Ahm-Shere, and Alex is constantly annoying the warrior by asking him, “Are we there, yet?,” complaining about having to go the bathroom, and acting like a spoiled brat that the water Lock-Nah brings him doesn’t have any ice in it. These interactions provide a steady stream of laughs, but also serve the plot. Alex isn’t just being a jerk to be a jerk, he’s doing it to annoy Lock-Nah to make him careless. When he lets Lock-Nah give him a bathroom break, he escapes off the train they’re traveling in. When Alex gets Lock-Nah to bring him water, it’s not so he can drink it, it’s so he can spill it in the sand and leave a clue for his parents.
Alex’s attack doesn’t work so well with the reincarnated Egyptians, however. When Meela (in her pre-Anck-Su-Namun’s soul phase) tells him to behave, Alex shoots back a snide, “I don’t behave for my own parents. What makes you think I’ll behave for you?”
“Because your parents don’t put poisonous snakes in your bed … while you’re sleeping.”
Alex is suitably impressed.
Some of his best interactions come with Imhotep. He puts on a brave face and, at first, doesn’t look all that scared by the mummy, but when Imhotep pulls off his mask and shows his not-yet-regenerated face, Alex is taken aback and realizes that this dude is the real deal.
Most of the action sequences work fine, providing a good mix of humor and thrills. The only really shaky part is the Scorpion King, himself. In the prologue, it was just Dwayne Johnson running round, but here in the contemporary period, it’s a CGI half-man, half-giant scorpion. The CGI of the scorpion half looks fine, but the human top-half just looks … well, it looks fake and cheap.
That’s a small complaint in an otherwise fine sequel. I would have liked to see them use John Hannah more, too, but the relationship between him and Alex is pretty darn good, providing both humor and serving as an example of the O’Connell familial bonds. And that’s what really sets THE MUMMY and it’s sequels apart – the thrill of seeing this family of adventurers do their thing. There’s no singular character arc in RETURNS that matches the Rick-Evey romance from THE MUMMY, but there’s still lots here to enjoy.
The film even gets a subtle, playful dig in at the Indiana Jones franchise and Indy’s fear of snakes. When the movie opens, a snake is slithering towards Evey, and she casually puts her boot under it and flicks it away.
“That’s poisonous,” Rick scolds.
“Only if it bites you,” Evey asserts.
And the ending provides a good amount of real pathos. RETURNS tries to get a “I can’t believe they killed Evey” reaction out of the audience, but I think everyone realizes she’s going to come back before the end of the film. Which she does, thanks to Alex. No, the real pathos at the end is derived from Imhotep himself. After Rick kills the Scorpion King, everything around them starts to crumble. A crack to the underworld opens up and the dead try to pull Rick and Imhotep down to Hell. They’re both clinging to the edge of the floor and across the way, Evey and Anck-Su-Namun (I hate typing that name) are watching them. The roof is collapsing, making reaching their lovers difficult. Rick tells Evey to get away, but she risks her life to save him. Imhotep asks Anck-Su-Namun to save him, and she runs away.
Imhotep is crushed by this act. He’s risked everything for Anck-Su-Namun and she won’t risk her life for him, choosing to let the undead claim him. Vosloo is fantastic here, looking at Rick and Evey’s love with a clear sense of admiration and respect. He realizes their love is something he thought he had with Anck-Su-Namun, but clearly does not. Instead of fighting, Imhotep gives up life, and willingly falls into the arms of the undead, damning himself to Hell.
It’s powerful stuff, and a great ending to a great film. THE MUMMY RETURNS isn’t as good as THE MUMMY, but it’s still a darn sight more entertaining than most popcorn flicks. Not only is it a worthy sequel, THE MUMMY RETURNS is a triumph on its own.
THE MUMMY REVIEW INDEX:
THE MUMMY: No Harm Ever Came From Reading a Book
THE MUMMY RETURNS: No Harm Ever Came From Opening a Chest
THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR: Good Going, Dad, You’ve Raised Another Mummy