”I hate mummies!” Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) bellows as he’s set upon by the umpteenth computerized creature from the crypt in The Mummy Returns.
The fellow protests too much. Clearly, he loves mummies, you love mummies, everybody loves the inconsequential but fantastic looking ancient dead first introduced in ”The Mummy” two years ago as harbingers of summer movie excitement. After all, with its combination of horror style thrills, gee-whiz imagery and hardy-har-har dialogue, Stephen Sommers’ blockbuster yarn shot right to the top of the box office pyramid. Why, the word ”mummy” itself is so sweet, and the shape shifting creatures are so snazzy and resourceful! So cute and playful in their one dimensional hellishness!
Hate mummies? Without them, what else is there for Rick to do, with his fondness for cartoon-size, Indiana Jones-style derring do? And so he’s back, Rick and everybody else from ”The Mummy” too, once again thinking and behaving like impertinent moderns trapped in a venerable cinematic genre they’re not sure is worth their serious attention. It’s 1933, eight years since the dashing legionnaire and his Egyptologist sweetie, Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), beat back the reawakened 3,000 year old menace Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo). In the intervening time, Rick and Evelyn have married and produced a resourceful sitcom son, Alex (Freddie Boath), while Evelyn’s foppish, sybaritic brother, Jonathan (John Hannah), has produced little except bons mots and bar bills.
But the O’Connells aren’t meant to relax in their London home like Nick and Nora Charles of the Middle East, surrounded by travel mementos. Imhotep (Vosloo, of the photogenic chrome dome) is loose again, roaring for his buried beloved, Anck Su Namun (Patricia Velasquez). What’s more, an even more baroque menace has been disinterred – the Scorpion King (WWF celebrity The Rock), a scuttling warrior who leads an army of dog headed wraith soldiers across the desert.
”The Mummy Returns” doesn’t so much scuttle as rev loudly going nowhere, a souped up engine of action, noise, and moreness. There are more changeups, more battle scenes, more elaborate mummy awakenings, and more visual references that recycle the familiar and recent: A grand opening battle between the army of the Scorpion King and that of the wise, tattooed mystery ally Ardeth Bay (Oded Fehr, encore) instantly brings to mind the crowd pleasing combat in ”Gladiator.” A scene in which Evelyn engages in balletic hand to hand combat and swordplay with the reconstituted Anck Su Namun reverberates with the thrill of the girl - girl action in ”Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” A dirigible that comes to the O’Connells’ rescue floats past the moon with a nod to ”E.T.” When they find themselves unexpectedly face to face with mummies, Alex and his uncle drop their jaws and holler ”Ahhhhh!” having learned the gesture from ”Home Alone.” The pygmy mummies that attack Rick in one of the final three or four or five battle scenes look and sound an awful lot like ”Jurassic Park” velociraptors.
And so what, right? For loop the loop summer action, ”The Mummy Returns” delivers the goods, right? Well, yes, but we’re letting blockbuster makers off too easy, settling for the distractions of computer wizardry rather than the dangers of emotional involvement. There’s not one minute, not one, when we need ever fear for the O’Connells, because we know all along that the monsters are made of pixels and, in the age of sequels, families populated by stars are always safe. Nor is there one minute when the mummies are awesome – like in the old days, like in the original 1932 ”Mummy” – because we know all along that they no longer represent figments of our unconscious but instead represent the latest advances in CGI technology.
And as if to seal the product against any contamination with old fashioned anxiety, the script is loaded with quips, some self-consciously, ironically grand, others self-consciously, ironically casual. ”Are we there yet?” ”No” ”Are we there yet?” ”No.” ”Are we there yet?” ”No,” plucky Alex torments a kidnapper, Lock Nah (Adewale Akinnuoye Agbaje, far scarier as Adebisi on Oz), who has stolen the boy in his plan to reincarnate Imhotep, not counting on the kid to channel the personality of Bart Simpson. Characters also issue grandiose proclamations of doom: ”You’ve started a chain reaction that can bring about the next apocalypse!”
It’s a mystery wrapped in gauze and box office expectations, this sequel. The actors themselves are more rip roaring and full of spunk than in their first outing. (We see relatively little of The Rock, as it turns out, and what we see is particularly computer controlled, but the guy makes a great face when he thunders, and displays the brightest, whitest teeth ever known to dentists in ancient Egypt.) Yet the actors have to battle such a machine generated windstorm of spectacle that they sometimes look like the loneliest adventurers in the world – all spiffed up with no place to go except in front of the green screen.