'Mummy Returns': a sock-it-to-'em spectacle

"The Mummy Returns" - and is anyone surprised? When you have box-office numbers like those racked up by "The Mummy" two years ago - more than $400 million worldwide, not counting video - you're bound to whip up a sequel quicker than an ancient Egyptian wizard could hex a hapless enemy.

Modern movie marketing is more arcane than ancient Egyptian wizardry, of course - today's incantations have to coax hordes of ticket-buyers into parting with their cash - so the sorcerers at Universal Pictures have backed up their alchemy with a clever Hollywood move. They've reenlisted the whole starring cast of the earlier "Mummy," along with writer-director Stephen Sommers and his experienced team of special-effects experts (see story, page 19).

All of which means "The Mummy Returns" is an unapologetic clone of its popular predecessor, unleashing a similar megadose of high-tech jolts.

Again the sturdy Brendan Fraser plays the sturdy Rick O'Connell, a handsome adventurer fond of poking around old tombs with his Egyptologist wife (Rachel Weisz) and - in a new offshoot of the "Mummy" franchise - their son Alex, a feisty eight-year-old. Their current exploits revolve around the resurrection of Imhotep, their three-millennium-old nemesis; the lurking danger of a long-ago warrior called The Scorpion King; and the appearance on Alex's arm of a magical bracelet that threatens to set off "a chain reaction that could bring on the apocalypse," in one of the movie's more flamboyant story twists.

Will the new "Mummy" captivate viewers as thoroughly as the 1999 version did? There's no reason to think otherwise. "The Mummy Returns" delivers all the sock-it-to-'em spectacle a Saturday-night audience could ask for, accompanied by rousing visual effects, smart-alecky dialogue, and enough sword-swinging action to beat "Gladiator" at its own game.

This said, the spectacle of yet another "Mummy" shuffling into view makes this an opportune time to ponder the difference between today's horror flicks and classics like the very first "Mummy" movie, directed by Karl Freund.

Catch that 1932 version on video, and you'll discover a very different approach to the notion of scary movies. Like other supernatural tales released by Universal in the 1930s - the original film versions of "Frankenstein" and "Dracula" among them - it creates its spooky moods through subtle suggestions rather than head-pounding action and flashy technical feats. Freund knew how to enrapture an audience with nuance and understatement, getting under your skin instead of assaulting your eyes and ears.

Decades of escalating action and visceral violence have taken a toll on the horror genre, though, and "The Mummy Returns" relies more on intricate computer effects than on persuasive acting, dialogue, and ideas.

Most regrettable of all, there's not a moment of real feeling in this expensive but empty-hearted epic. Even when death overcomes a sympathetic character, it's hard to care, because the next shot will surely bring some arbitrary plot device to reverse the problem and expedite the happy ending.

Fans of modern-day horror will find everything here they desire, and rivers of money are certain to flow from the "Mummy" coffin to Universal's coffers as the summer box-office season begins. But moviegoers who like subtle chills may wish this explosive entertainment were buried quietly in the Egyptian sand.

Rated PG-13; contains a great deal of action-movie violence.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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