Can you believe it’s been 20 years since The Mummy Returns released in theaters? The blockbuster epic arrived with plenty of fanfare on May 4, 2001, as a sequel to 1999’s surprisingly terrific The Mummy and promised more high-spirited adventure with Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser), his wife Evy (Rachel Weisz), and … their kid Alex?
Cue record scratch sound effect. Don’t worry. The film only went downhill from there.
Produced on a $98 million-dollar budget, Returns totaled $70.1M on its opening weekend, the second highest-grossing weekend of all time behind only The Lost World: Jurassic Park — that’s how enthusiastic audiences were — and went on to gross $435M worldwide (compared to the original’s $415M haul), despite tepid reviews (just 47% on Rotten Tomatoes versus The Mummy’s 61%) and lukewarm reaction from moviegoers. Indeed, seven long years would pass before Universal returned to the franchise with 2008’s equally lackluster The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which likewise grossed $400+ million worldwide, but failed to ignite much enthusiasm and ultimately led to the Tom Cruise reboot-flop The Mummy in 2017.
So, while The Mummy Returns was technically victorious, it also stopped a profitable franchise dead in its tracks. I blame the rehashed story, director Stephen Sommers’ campy, go-for-broke style, those really bad special effects, and the goofy family dynamic that all but usurped the original’s tongue-in-cheek tone in favor of cringe-worthy melodramatics. That stupid blimp didn’t help matters, either.
Yet, despite its gratuitous flaws, The Mummy Returns still managed to hit one significant, even radical milestone: this was the film that catapulted Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Hollywood success.
Your view on that particular milestone may vary, of course, but you can’t deny The Rock as a pop culture icon. Sure, Johnson was a huge star during his professional wrestling days where a single eyebrow lift would send a legion of diehard fans into wild fits of insanity. Still, his leap onto the big screen somehow made his larger-than-life persona even larger — and it all started with a rather simple cameo at the beginning of The Mummy Returns.
In case you might have forgotten, Johnson appears in the film as the Scorpion King, a quasi-bad guy who, after failing to conquer the world with his grand army, waits for the survivors of his force to die in the desert before trading his soul for an even grander army consisting of the god Anubis’ jackal-like warriors. Naturally, once ole Scorpio has conquered the planet, or maybe just an obscure town in the desert, Anubis takes his soul to the Underworld, where he likely spends the rest of eternity wishing he hadn’t made such an erroneous deal.
The Rock only has a handful of lines in these early scenes — in another language, no less — but makes the most of his limited appearance and manages to show off a natural screen presence, even if said presence is slightly diminished by his poorly rendered CGI counterpart who appears during the film’s (admittedly) exciting climax.
In any case, Johnson managed to turn that cameo into a $5.5M payday (the biggest for a first-time actor) when he agreed to star in the spinoff The Scorpion King, released one year later to a decent box office haul, and has since starred in films such as The Rundown, Pain and Gain, Moana and massive franchises Jumanji and the Fast and Furious saga, to say nothing of the numerous films and TV shows he’s produced over the years. All told, the Rock’s cumulative box office gross is just under $5 billion, and he’s still only 49 years old with Disney’s Jungle Cruise (alongside Emily Blunt), DC’s Black Adam, Red Notice (alongside Ryan Reynolds and Gal Gadot) and another Jumanji film lurking on the horizon.
So, on the anniversary of one of the more disappointing sequels of the last two decades, keep in mind that without The Mummy Returns, it’s likely The Rock’s trajectory to Hollywood looks a lot different, if it even happens at all.
And to think, all it took was Brendan Fraser outrunning the sun, Rachel Weisz experiencing reincarnation and resurrection, that stupid blimp flown by a pilot who doesn’t get shot in the ass, the greatest pygmy attack ever filmed and one of the poorest examples of early 2000s CGI to make it happen.
The Mummy Returns, we salute you!