The Mummy, a kinda-sorta remake of the Boris Karloff original (1932), is an old-fashioned popcorn movie. It spawned two direct sequels, a pretty good ride at Universal Studios, and a spin-off/prequel that turned into its own franchise full of muscular men in various 300-style costumes made from random strips of leather.
Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz, as slightly-dishonorable-soldier Rick and adorably-adventurous-librarian Evy, don’t just have charisma and terrific chemistry, they also have a goofy emotional openness to them. There’s a knife-edge between playing something straight and going full camp–considering the cheesiness, let’s call it the pizza cutter. Fraser and Weisz hit that edge exactly. They juggle screwball comedy tropes and Indiana Jones and make it work as gleeful fictional constructs. The film is at its best when it’s just following them around, watching them ride camels and get drunk by campfires.
When it strays from “Rick and Evy’s fun Egyptian adventure,” the film stumbles. Away from its central characters, it can’t decide how much what its stakes are. Egypt’s being hit with the plagues all over again and it seldom seems like anything more than a mild inconvenience. You get the feeling that the biggest inconvenience the British ex-pats face is that the water turning into blood has affected their liquor cabinets. The resurrected Imhotep inhales people’s life-forces in silly tornadoes, unless he’s taking the time to individually, sadistically torment a man whose eyes and tongue he’s already stolen by visiting him as a guest. Bits of movie-logic that should hold true drop out whenever they’re inconvenient. Imhotep is terrified of cats until he’s fully resurrected? Then why are people not stocking their rooms with boxes full of kittens? The man whose eyes Imhotep takes has such bad vision that he can’t make out anything without his glasses… but evidently being put into a mummified skull fixed this problem 100%. In a movie that’s not afraid of a joke, how do you turn down a nearsighted mummy?
The biggest and most cringe-inducing problem with The Mummy is part of both its old-fashionedness and its trouble establishing stakes, which is to say that it can’t decide whether or not Egyptians are really people. The cowardly, opportunistic Beni could be excused by being balanced out by the charismatic, competent Ardeth–and by being kind of a weaselly delight–but there’s little justification, artistic or otherwise, for the constant jokes about how the prison warden smells. The Americans get deaths with at least a little bit of pathos or dignity; the warden gets scarabs under his skin and dies by running full-tilt at a wall in a scene that has the beat of a punchline. At one point a very slight emphasis is placed on the fact that the Americans allow their Egyptian diggers to take the brunt of any dangerous work, treating them as disposable, unlike Our Heroes, but the film is stocked top to bottom with disposable Egyptians who are there to die in crowd scenes to assure the audience that this is serious, sort of. Imhotep makes them all into zombies at one point, because, you know, why not? They’re a faceless horde anyway.
It’s a smooth ride, though, if you’re content to be carried along by the charms of both the stars and cheeky pulp adventure. But if it currently exists for you only in a haze of pleasant nostalgia, I don’t know that I would recommend returning to it.