Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a recurring column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Brendan Fraser’s performance in The Mummy.
Unless you’ve been living in an underground bomb shelter your entire life, you undoubtedly have seen one of the many enigmatic characters Brendan Fraser created throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was Hollywood’s favorite lunkhead, bringing ridiculous characters like Encino Man and George of the Jungle to life. But that didn’t pigeonhole him as a purely comedic actor, either. Between his sillier roles, he was also given the chance to flex his dramatic muscles with films like School Ties and Gods and Monsters. Brendan Fraser was so popular in the late 90s because he struck a unique balance. He was both a classic Hollywood leading man and a character actor with a deft handling of physical comedy.
Fraser’s physical performances meant it was a foregone conclusion that he would eventually be the lead in an action movie. His chance came in 1999 with Stephen Sommers’ remake of the Universal Horror classic, The Mummy.
In Stephen Sommers’ film, Fraser plays Rick O’Connell, a former member of the French Foreign Legion. During a battle, he stumbles upon the lost city of Hamunaptra, the ancient resting place of the titular mummy, Imhotep. Saved from execution by an amateur Egyptologist, Evelyn (Rachel Weisz), Rick agrees to take her to Hamunaptra. With her brother, she wants to find the lost city’s hidden treasures, including an Egyptian Book of the Dead. Unaware of the true powers the book holds, Evelyn reads a passage reviving Imhotep. This causes a domino effect of chaos and destruction Rick must race to stop.
Brendan Fraser’s career was on a trajectory to Hollywood stardom prior to The Mummy, but this was the film that would make him one of the brightest new stars in the film industry. However, the role that made him globally recognizable is deeply indebted to another popular action character: Indiana Jones. A more cynical person may look at Fraser’s performance in The Mummy and say, “He’s just ripping off Harrison Ford,” which wouldn’t be altogether incorrect. It was something Roger Ebert even explicitly called out in his original review of the film, “Brendan Fraser plays Rick, a low-rent Indiana Jones who singlehandedly fights his way through a bewildering series of battles.”
But even though Rick O’Connell is cut from the same cloth as George Lucas and Steven Spielberg’s famous creation, we don’t love Fraser’s performance because he’s doing his best impersonation of Harrison Ford. We love him because he injects Rick with an overwhelming sense of affability. This is in direct contrast with the stoic nature of Ford’s characterization. Fraser is clearly playing with the same Hollywood archetypes Ford used to create Indiana Jones. But it’s the geniality he infuses into Rick that lets the character stand on its own two feet.
That geniality comes out of Fraser opting to play this adventurous character with humor and panache. Harrison Ford has moments of rib-cracking levity throughout the Indiana Jones series, but Fraser’s Rick is a comedic character through and through. He gives Rick realistic hesitations in the perilous situations he finds himself in. This allows Fraser to make choices the audience can relate to in a way we just can’t with Indiana Jones. Ford’s performance doesn’t shy away from his character’s utmost vulnerabilities, but we also don’t really see Indiana Jones being anything but heroically suave. You can’t say the same about Fraser. He purposefully plays Rick as a reluctant hero. This gives him ample opportunity to add in dashes of comedy amidst the explosive action sequences.
This is perfectly exemplified in a moment during the film’s climactic final fight scene. As Rick saves Evelyn from the clutches of Imhotep, the mummy sends a trio of undead guards to attack him. As they prepare to strike, Rick roars like a lion. In return, he receives a hellish scream from the mummified guards. He pauses, considering his next move before he audibly says “Nuh-uh” and quickly flees.
This is similar in tone to a moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indiana Jones pulls out a pistol to shoot a sword-wielding villain rather than jump into a dangerous brawl. However, Indiana Jones’ reluctance to fight still comes with an overwhelming air of badassery. That’s not what we see in Fraser’s Rick. His bellowing doesn’t strike fear into our hearts but rather abject comedy. Rather than tenuously facing his foes, he knows just when to turn tail and run from a fight. This is an impulse everyone in the audience can relate to–whether they want to admit it or not. This again speaks to one of the central reasons why we love Fraser’s performance. Rick is clearly an action hero, but Fraser still makes character choices the audience can find relatable.
In the decades following The Mummy, we’ve continued to see new riffs on Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones, from Nolan North’s Nathan Drake in the Uncharted video game series to everything Chris Pratt has aspired to become since morphing from a lovable loser on Parks and Recreation to blockbuster action hero in Guardians of the Galaxy. But the underlying tether tying these modern characters together isn’t their correlations with Indiana Jones. It’s their lighthearted approach to action. That’s why these characters feel more influenced by the amiability of Fraser and not the smoldering charisma of Ford. Rick O’Connell is not as outwardly cool as Indiana Jones. But Fraser’s unique charm makes his performance so much more than a carbon copy of Ford’s famous character.
Brendan Fraser is experiencing a career renaissance after fading into relative obscurity in the mid-2000s. He’s spoken in interviews about why he fell off of Hollywood’s radar–a mixture of physical injuries and emotional trauma–but he never fell out of the hearts and minds of those of us who grew up on the engaging characters he played in films like The Mummy. Fraser’s return to Hollywood stardom has reached its zenith with the critical acclaim he’s received for his performance in Darren Aronofsky’s The Whale. Thanks to his work on that film, he’s entering a new phase of his career that may very well lead him to the Academy Awards. Here’s hoping he makes a pitstop to give audiences one more chance to watch him play a character like Rick O’Connell once again.