The Mummy

(1999) *** Pg-13
125 min. Universal Pictures. Directors: Stephen Sommers, Greg Michael. Cast: Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, John Hannah, Kevin O'Connor, Arnold Vosloo.

/content/films/3160/8.jpgThe Universal brand has a long association with monster movies, dating back to the days of Lugosi (Dracula), Chaney (The Wolf Man) and Karloff (Frankenstein). 1932's The Mummy cast Karloff as Im-ho-tep (alias Ardath Bay), an ancient Egyptian prince brought back to life. Im-ho-tep's story was an across-the-ages romantic thriller as he pursued his eternal love Princess Anck-es-en-Amon by the vehicle of reincarnation. Though the first film is a classic with memorably creepy moments and makeups, modern audiences (and the modern studios) have different expectations when it comes to genre films. So when it came to exploiting the Mummy property, Universal gambled on writer-director Stephen Sommers to make 1999's The Mummy a fresh and appealing action-horror film.

The gamble paid off. Using the Indiana Jones franchise as a model, Sommers reconstructed The Mummy as an unpretentious pulp adventure built atop the original film's dark romance. In the film's prologue, we learn of the unfortunate fate of two lovers circa 1290 B.C. Pharoah Seti I's high priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) pursues nookie with the Pharoah's mistress Anck-Su-Namun (Patricia Velasquez). Narration informs us that Imhotep's untimely death brought with it certain compensations, making him "an unholy flesh-eater with the strength of ages, power over the sands, and the glory of invincibility." Or as Imhotep is fond of putting it, "Death is only the beginning."

Cut to 1923 Hamunaptra, where Foreign Legionnaire Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) inadvertantly stirs Imhotep. Later hooking up with Cairo Museum of Antiquities Egyptologist Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz, doing her best sexy librarian) and her wastrel brother Jonathan (John Hannah, fine comic relief), Rick agrees to lead an expedition back to Hamunaptra. The expedition becomes a race with another team of treasure hunters, and the combined zeal of all involved results in all manner of supernatural hell to break loose, from killer scarabs (they really know how to get under your skin) to a return engagement of the 10 Plagues of Egypt, unleashed by the freed Imhotep. In their new task of sending Imhotep back to the sand, the heroes get an invaluable assist from Ardeth Bay (silky-smooth Oded Fehr) and the rest of the Medjai, the Pharoah's legacy of sacred bodyguards.

Sommers' guiding principle was to make his Mummy not "a guy wrapped in bandages." Special effects and big action sequences being a big part of the equation, this Mummy is a long way from the restrained elegance of the Karloff film, but it's darn entertaining nonetheless, and though Imhotep is clearly a villain of great ambition, he's also unconventional in that his primary motivation is true love. That The Mummy works as well as it does is largely due to Fraser, who sets the tone with his unique style of goofy bravado. Jerry Goldsmith's epic scoring is also key, as is impressive effects work by the team at ILM. The 1999 CGI from this film holds up better than one might expect, with textured armies of soldier mummies and priest mummies providing a spot of Harryhausen-esque wonderment.

Sommers and production designer Allan Cameron makes great use of the period, one pretty much unexploited in action cinema. Part of the bargain of this old-fashioned, rip-roaring story is a great quantity of gunslinging and fisticuffs. What was standard procedure in decades past is understandably frowned upon by many modern parents trying to discourage fantasy gunplay and actual brawling. If parents can get past the film's bloodless violence, however, a good time will be had by all.

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Aspect ratios: 2.35:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 7/22/2008

Distributor: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Universal makes its Blu-Ray debut with the Mummy franchise: sparkling new discs of The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and The Scorpion King. The disc earns the title "Deluxe Edition"--fear no double-dipping on this one, folks: it's fully loaded. The high-def transfer looks damn good on Blu-Ray: clean, colorful, and detailed, with no distracting signs of digital compression. There's a bit of subtle noise here and there, but on the whole, I would characterize the image quality as near-perfect, and especially impressive-looking for a film that's nearly a decade old. The muscular DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack is also a knockout, with discrete effects, dialogue and music. Excepting the text-based "Egyptology 101" feature found on the original DVD, all of the special features (in standard definition) make their way to Blu-Ray.

The Mummy features not one but three Feature Commentaries, one with writer-director Stephen Sommers and editor Bob Ducsay; one with actor Brendan Fraser; and one with actors Oded Fehr, Kevin J. O'Connor, and Arnold Vosloo. This requires a time investment that only die-hard Mummy fans are likely to make it, but the tracks are certainly an impressive offering. You're best served by Sommers' energetic and detailed commentary, though it's always interesting to get a perspective from the actors (and a sense of their personalities).

Via something Universal calls U-Control, Blu-Ray also offers a Picture-In-Picture video commentary, with interview clips from the archives popping up as you watch the film. It's a time-sensitive way to get the most of the behind-the-scenes content, with set footage and cast and crew interviews. Another menu option is My Scenes, a handy bookmark feature.

There's a suite of three Deleted Scenes (2:21) here, as well as "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor Sneak Peek" (3:01), a featurette some may have seen in theatres as "pre-show entertainment." It's a whirlwhind tease with comments by director Rob Cohen, producers Stephen Sommers and Bob Ducsay, Brendan Fraser, Maria Bello, Luke Ford, Jet Li, and Michelle Yeoh. Visual and Special Effects Formation breaks down five key sequences: "City of Thebes," "Scarab Burial," "Serious Trouble," "Imhotep Eats Scarab," and "Rick Rescues Evelyn." For each, we can select Plate Photography, Visual Effects Elements, Composited Shot, or Final Feature Sequence.

"An Army to Rule the World, Part 1" (4:02) is a brief featurette featuring Sommers and Ducsay hitting the main points about the film's concept (Part 2 can be found on the Mummy Returns disc). "Unraveling the Legacy of The Mummy" (8:07) looks back to the character's history in a featurette surprisingly narrated by avant-garde filmmaker Guy Maddin (though he's uncredited). Interview subjects include Sommers, Fraser, Silent Screams: The Chronicles of Terror author Steve Haberman, producers Sean Daniel and James Jacks, Nightmare: The Birth of Horror author Christopher Frayling, special effects makeup artist Nick Dudman, The Essential Monster Movie Guide author Stephen Jones, visual effects supervisor John Berton, Rachel Weisz, and John Hannah.

The most detailed making-of doc on the disc, "Building a Better Mummy" (49:55), kicks off with the preview for the 1932 The Mummy and proceeds to interviews with Sommers, Berton, Daniel, Fraser, Jacks, Weisz, Hannah, Vosloo, Dudman, visual effects art director Alex Laurant, ILM visual effects supervisor Daniel Jeanette, CG animation supervisor Dennis Turner, computer graphics supervisors Michael Bauer and Ben Snow, lead Viewpaint artist Catherine Craig, CG sequence supervisors Ed Kramer and Michael Horsley, and stunt coordinator Simon Crane.

The Storyboard to Final Film Comparison section covers seven key sequences: "Anubis Chamber," "Desert Sandstorm," "The Sahara," "Final Flight," "Hangman's Noose," "Scarab Run," and "Trouble in Cairo." Lastly, we get a "Photograph Montage" (4:18) of production stills set to Jerry Goldsmith's score. Without a doubt, this is a disc to own for Mummy fans.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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