Nothing says the 90’s like Virtuosity, a big hunk of circuit board sleaze and cheese that is so of it’s time that it’s hard to watch it these days without believing it to be some kind of spoof. Re-reading that sentence it sounds like I was making some kind of underhanded compliment, which I suppose is a better outcome for a film to arrive at than some. It could have gotten stale or dated in a bad way. Well it’s definitely not stale (it is dated though), in fact it’s one of the liveliest flicks from back then, thanks mostly to a ballistic characterization from Russell Crowe. Crowe is Sid.6, a virtual reality program molded from the personalities of several different serial killers and designed to basically wreak havoc. This is exactly what happens when he escapes, or rather is let out by one of the maniacs at the research centre (Stephen Spinella). Sid is now flesh, blood and roughly 200 pounds of extremely skilled, remorseless killing material, running wild in the unsuspecting streets. The head of the Institute (William Forsythe) has the brilliant idea to recruit ex-cop whack job Parker Barnes (Denzel Washington) to hunt Sid down and destroy him. Barnes has a bleak history with artificial intelligence, one that has left him with a cybernetic replacement arm and a huge chip on his shoulder. This is one mean, mean spirited film, as we are subjected to a manic Crowe as tortures, murders and maims innocent civilians with a grinning cavalier cadence the Joker would applaud. He’s off his nut here, something which clumsy bruiser Crowe rarely gets to do, so it’s a rare and extreme outing for him. Washington is perpetually angry, ill adjusted and violent here, and the lengths he goes to destroy Sid are almost as bad as his quarry’s homicidal antics. The cast is stacked with genre favourites, so watch for Costas Mandylor, Kevin J. O’Connor, Louise Fletcher, Kelly Lynch, Traci Lords and a weaselly William Fichtner. The special effects… well what can I say, this was the 90’s and they look like a computer game that’s been drenched in battery acid, then souped up with caffeine. There’s brief homages to video games in fact, and the opener where Crowe is still inside the program is fairly creative. I don’t know if the creators of the film were trying to say something about the dangers of virtual reality, but whatever it was, it’s sort of lost in a hurricane of unpleasent shenanigans that are admittedly entertaining. One thing that’s evident is that anyone who makes a computer program with the persona of one, let alone a handful of murderers is just begging for an incident. I suppose that’s the point here though, the catalyst for the whole deal. Crowe and Washington are great though, both down and dirtier than their characters in the next royal rumble they’d share, Ridley Scott’s American Gangster. Fun stuff, if you have a strong gag reflex and don’t take yourself too seriously.
Many cinephiles view director Stephen Sommers as the cinematic equivalent of Satan, and with everything that has gone horribly wrong with Hollywood blockbuster films. And, to be fair, with films like Van Helsing (2004) and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009) on a not-too impressive resume (in fact, looking over his filmography, there’s only one film of his I like), he’s hardly a filmmaker one equates with quality, but I will admit to being quite fond of The Mummy (1999). As far as Indiana Jones rip-offs go, it is pretty good. If that sounds like faint praise, I don’t mean it to be as Sommers’ film is actually a lot of fun and entertaining as hell.
The movie is the very popular re-imagining of the old Boris Karloff classic and would go on to spawn two inferior sequels and transform Brendan Fraser into a bonafide leading man. Up to that point he had a reputation for starring in forgettable comedies like Encino Man (1992), The Scout (1994), and Airheads (1994). With The Mummy, he demonstrated some serious action film chops with a hint of romantic leading man qualities that were complimented by his knack for comedy, thankfully doled out in relative moderation this time. The end result is a satisfying popcorn movie with no other agenda than to entertain.
It’s 1923 and the French Foreign Legion engage the Medjai, descendents of Pharaoh Seti I, in battle at the legendary Hamunaptra, the City of the Dead. When his superior officer deserts, Rick O’Connell (Fraser) finds himself in charge, much to his chagrin. It certainly is an exciting way to introduce our leading man as he and his fellow soldiers attempt to stand their ground on the city walls as the Medjai attack in wave after wave. Brendan Fraser shows some decent action movie skills as his character valiantly tries to stay alive despite being overwhelmed by superior numbers and abandoned by his cowardly sidekick (and comic relief) Beni (Kevin J. O’Connor). Rick narrowly escapes and runs off into the desert where the Medjai leave him to die.
Three years later in Cairo, we meet bookish librarian Evelyn Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) at the Museum of Antiquities as she single-handedly manages to topple over a room full of towering bookcases like dominoes when she attempts to shelve a book. It’s a cute bit of slapstick that establishes Evelyn as one of the most not-so graceful people on the planet. With her hair tied up and sporting a thick-rimmed pair of glasses, the movie’s greatest special effect may be trying to convince us that the gorgeous Rachel Weisz is a socially awkward bookworm (yeah, right). Evelyn’s application to bigger and better things has been rejected yet again because she doesn’t have enough field experience. Along comes her older ne’er-do-well brother Jonathan (John Hannah) who has discovered a trinket at an archaeological dig in Thebes. Inside it contains a map to the mythic Hamunaptra, the place where the earliest Pharaohs are said to have hidden the wealth of Egypt. No one has ever found it and naturally Evelyn’s boss scoffs at the notion of its very existence.
It turns out that Jonathan actually stole the map from Rick who is rotting away in prison. Jonathan and Evelyn pay him a visit and he agrees to tell them where the City of the Dead is located but only if they free him. They do (and just in the nick of time) and set out for the site with a rival expedition of American fortune hunters also looking for it. As luck would have it, they are led by Beni, setting up a personal rivalry between him and Rick. Both groups arrive at the City of the Dead and split up, each looking for treasure. However, the American fortune seekers uncover a curse that condemns their party to death.
Meanwhile, Rick and Evelyn uncover the coffin of Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), the ruler of Hamunaptra and who carried on a forbidden affair with Seti I’s wife Princess Anck-su-namun (Patricia Velasquez). He was buried alive for his indiscretions while she killed herself. Evelyn unlocks the legendary Book of the Dead and reads from it, unwittingly resurrecting Imhotep who proceeds to kidnap Evelyn with the intention of sacrificing her so that his lover will also come back to life. It’s up to Rick, Jonathan and Ardeth Bey (Oded Fehr), the enigmatic leader of the Medjai, to stop Imhotep.
One of the things that makes The Mummy work is the chemistry between Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. At first, Evelyn sees Rick as an uncouth mercenary and he sees her as a naive stuffed shirt. But the more time they spend together, especially in death-defying situations, the more they grow to admire and respect one another. The two actors handle this development quite well and certainly make for an attractive couple with Fraser’s matinee idol good looks and Weisz’s beautiful appearance – a little something for everyone. They manage to transcend the predictable screenplay and often clichéd dialogue through the sheer force of their natural charisma. This is readily apparent in the campfire scene where one-night Rick teaches Evelyn a bit about hand-to-hand combat even though she’s had a little too much to drink. She ends up passing out just before they kiss, much to his bemusement. There’s a bit of an old school Hollywood vibe to this scene and to how these actors approach their respective roles that works.
As far as Indiana Jones clones go, Rick doesn’t quite bring the slight air of danger that Harrison Ford brought to Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), the most obvious influence on The Mummy. Not to mention, Fraser has more hulking boyish good looks as opposed to Ford’s roguish charm. Also, Fraser relies more on comedy than Ford but as far as action-oriented treasure hunters go, you could do worse than Rick O’Connell. Fraser hasn’t really been able to capitalize on the success of this film, appearing in several generic children’s adventure films – although, he showed some promise co-starring with Michael Caine in an adaptation of The Quiet American (2002).
While Evelyn is certainly not as feisty and as capable as Marion in Raiders, she has more of an arc as she goes from sheltered academic to damsel in distress to experienced adventurer. At the time, Weisz was known for appearing in small, independent films and the success of The Mummy would launch her into the A-list stratosphere. She has fared the best of the cast, appearing in delightful romantic comedies like About a Boy (2002) and Definitely, Maybe (2008), and winning an Academy Award for her excellent work in The Constant Gardener (2005).
Sommers handles the action sequences with refreshing simplicity (something that would be absent from his subsequent films). We always know what’s going on and where everyone is. He clearly took notes while watching Raiders and manages to capture its flair for 1930 cliffhanger serials. The Medjai siege on the boat to Hamunaptra early on in the movie is particularly exciting and well-staged, evoking a real Indy Jones vibe.
As with so many big budget tent-pole movies for Hollywood studios, The Mummy was a project that gestated for years and went through many hands before it wound up with Sommers. This new version’s origins lie with producer James Jacks who decided in 1992 to update the original film for the 1990s. He struck a deal with Universal Pictures who agreed to back it but only on a budget around $10 million. Jacks remembered that the studio “essentially wanted a low-budget horror franchise.” To this end, he hired filmmaker/writer Clive Barker whose version was about the head of a contemporary art museum built like a pyramid. The man was actually a cultist trying to reanimate mummies. Jacks described it as “dark, sexual and filled mysticism.” Sadly, after several meetings, Barker and Universal lost interest in the project and parted ways.
Once Barker was off the project, George Romero was brought in and he wanted to make a zombie-style horror film along the lines of his legendary feature film debut, Night of the Living Dead (1968). However, Jacks and the studio wanted to make a mainstream film and felt that Romero’s vision was too scary. Next up was Joe Dante with a contemporary reincarnation tale with elements of a love story starring Daniel-Day Lewis as a brooding Mummy. John Sayles even co-wrote the script but Universal was only willing to spend $15 million on his vision. Jacks then offered the project to Mick Garris and also Wes Craven, both of whom passed.
In 1997, Stephen Sommers contacted Jacks with his take on The Mummy “as a kind of Indiana Jones or Jason and the Argonauts with the mummy as the creature giving the hero a hard time.” He saw the original film when he was only 8-years-old and with his version wanted to recreate the things he liked about it only on a bigger scale. He had wanted in on the project since 1993 but other writers or directors were always involved. Seizing a window of opportunity, he prepared an 18-page pitch to Universal. As luck would have it (for Sommers, that is), the studio had taken a bath on Babe: Pig in the City (1998) and in response, decided to revisit its successful franchises from the 1930s. Executives were so thrilled with Sommers’ concept for The Mummy that they increased the budget from $15 million to a staggering $80 million. Once he got the gig, he spent six months researching the film and then eight weeks writing the screenplay.
When it came time to cast Rick O’Connell, Jacks offered the role to Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, and Ben Affleck but they were either not interested or too busy. Jacks and Sommers were impressed with the box office receipts from George of the Jungle (1997) and cast Brendan Fraser as a result. The actor was drawn to the project because he was looking for an action film and liked the idea that Universal was reinventing one of its properties from the 1930s. For the character, he drew inspiration from the likes of Robin Hood, Buck Rogers and Sinbad. Most importantly, he understood that Rick was the kind of character who didn’t “take himself too seriously, otherwise the audience can’t go on that journey with him.”
The Mummy was shot over three months in Morocco and not in Egypt because of the unstable political conditions there. They also had the official support of the Moroccan army. In a reassuring touch, the cast had kidnapping insurance taken out on them. In addition, the cast and crew had to deal with blinding sandstorms and bad-tempered camels. The production had wranglers on set to catch snakes, scorpions and spiders at the end of every shooting day. This still didn’t prevent many crew members from being airlifted out after being bitten. Everyone also had to worry about dehydration when filming moved to the Sahara Desert. The production’s medical team ended up creating a beverage that the cast and crew had to drink every two hours.
Looking back, whatever good will Sommers garnered with The Mummy, he has subsequently pissed it all away with The Mummy Returns (2001), which reduced the number of quiet moments that developed the characters and told the story in the first movie in favor of wall-to-wall frenetic action and the addition of a bratty child (Rick and Evelyn’s offspring, natch) into the mix. Sommers didn’t return for the third and most disappointing installment (neither did Weisz) which is just as well. The damage had already been done with The Mummy Returns but the first movie is still a rousing, entertaining ride.
Stephen Sommers’s Deep Rising is some of the most fun you’ll have watching an overblown action horror spectacle, if that’s your type of thing. It plays the slimy underwater alien formula to the hilt, an epic and very funny gory swashbuckler that is sadly very underrated and not too talked about these days. It’s ridiculously watchable, insanely gory and punctuated by one liners and quips that work so well in the flippant context of the script. The story concerns a band of nasty sea pirates who plan to hijack the world’s largest ocean liner cruise ship, and all the riches onboard. They arrive to find the vessel empty of any passengers, and full of something they’ll wish they never came across. A massive and very icky underwater predator has eaten everyone onboard and now has turned its attention to the newcomers. They are picked off one by one in deliciously grotesque kills that show director Sommers in his little seen R rated mode. Treat Williams is a hoot as John Finnegan, a sort of cross between Indiana Jones and Bruce Campbell, a soldier of fortune and adventurer with a vernacular chock full of wiseass quotes and idioms that tickle the funny bone no end. He’s got a sidekick named Joey Pantucci (Kevin J. O Connor slays it) and a girlfriend named Trillian St. James (isn’t that the best name ever?) played by Famke Janssen in a fierce, sexy and capable turn as the chick with the gun that everyone loves. The trio make the film dizzyingly entertaining and you find yourself wishing you could hang out with them longer once it’s over. There’s a snivelling villain played by the always smarmy Anthony Heald, and the ragtag group of pirates are brought to life by distinct personalities such as Jason Flemyng, Cliff Curtis, Clifton Powell, Djimon Hounsou and the great Wes Studi. Sommers is a seriously underrated director. He spins loving odes to the adventure films of Old Hollywood with passion, wonder and the spark of imagination in spades. And what does he get? Critically and commercially spat on, time and time again, with some of his films not even getting a proper release (don’t get me started on the masterpiece that is Odd Thomas). Hollywood and the masses don’t deserve him and his toiling, thankless work, and yet he soldiers on. What a guy, and what a stellar filmmaker. This ones a testament, a rollicking, bloody piece of creature feature bliss that never fails to knock my socks right the hell off.