Last month, I wrote about how Keanu Reeves‘ performance as Neo in The Matrix set a template for a new type of action hero as we headed into the 2000s, a new brand of bonafide badasses that also happened to be supremely, endearingly un-cool underneath all that bravado and brawn. Make no mistake, Neo unironically deadpanning “I know kung-fu” is the moment that started this movement, but it’s another scene from 1999 that solidified it, set it in stone, and turned it into the model that pretty much every leading man of the last twenty years has been striving toward since: Brendan Fraser as American adventurer Rick O’Connell in The Mummy, screaming in the face of reincarnated 3000-year-old Egyptian high-priest Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo) before blasting the monster away with a shotgun.
It’s kind’ve a miracle that The Mummy not only worked so well to the tune of $415 million worldwide and two sequels, but also to the point it’s become one of the most effortlessly rewatchable movies of all time. (It’s been on a near-constant loop in the background of my apartment since it hit Netflix. My neighbors are deeply concerned.) Director Stephen Sommers‘ film is ostensibly a take on the classic 1932 creature-feature starring Boris Karloff but beefed up to the most swashbuckling degree possible, much more an ode to Indiana Jones than the iconic black-and-white Universal monster films.
At its center, suspender-clad and sturdy as the pyramids, is Fraser’s O’Connell, the former military man plucked from prison to ferry Evelyn “Evie” Carnahan (Rachel Weisz) and her brother Jonathan (John Hannah) across the desert to the city of the dead, Hamunaptra. The character is one of those classic Hollywood stories of a role originally offered to much higher-tier names—Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and eventual star of the far inferior 2017 reboot, Tom Cruise—that you now couldn’t imagine being played by anyone else. Because there’s something singularly wonderful about Fraser in the role, starting with the way the dude looks. To be blunt, the man is a slab, a literal portrait of an archetypal adventurer who looks like he was literally brought to life from the cover of an Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan novel. (We’ve all seen George of the Jungle. You know what I mean.)
But like he did in most of his prime roles, Fraser plays against his own look. What easily could have been a Sylvester Stallone-esque mummy-killing-machine—and, indeed, the role was also offered to Stallone, which I truly believe would’ve sparked the darkest timeline—is filled with an innate innocence, like a golden retriever puppy who can somehow double-fist a pair of pistols. With all due respect to Zachary Levi, Fraser as Rick O’Connell is a pitch-perfect audition to play Shazam, a child given the skills and body of an action star. The character does owe a major debt to Indiana Jones, yeah, but for all his sand-filled hats and fear of snakes, Indy was a character you felt was in control even in the most uncontrollable situations because that’s just the type of presence Harrison Ford offers. Fraser, a genuine master of pratfalls and the always-hilarious “whoa!“—a wilder, louder version of Keanu Reeves’ trademark “whoa“, to be clear—made O’Connell endearing because of his occasional incompetence. The Mummy has no shortage of iconic moments, but my favorite is a quick one. During a boat ambush, Rick calmly stops to reload his guns during a firefight…but doesn’t notice the line of bullets approaching his head. At the last minute, Evy has to step in and pull his head out of the line of fire. It’s played perfectly; Fraser looks like a kid with his hand caught in a very deadly cookie jar.
And make no mistake, the character doesn’t work without Evy, and more specifically, the contrast to Weisz’s brilliantly level-headed performance. (There’s a reason that The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which replaced Weisz with Maria Bello, didn’t work at all. Okay, there are many, many reasons, but still.) Evie is arguably the protagonist of The Mummy; she’s the one who figures everything out every step of the way, the only one in the entire crew making the trip to Hamunaptra interested in anything other than gold. In comparison, Rick is just there to make sure no one dies in the process. He needs Evy; it’s especially charming to watch Fraser during any long expositional explanations by Weisz. He’s just listening, because despite knowing his way around a gun he, like the audience, doesn’t know shit about ancient curses and mystical books of the dead, things much more helpful than bullets in this particular scenario.
It’s a dynamic that’s been fueling the MCU, a.k.a. the biggest franchise of all time, for a decade now. The built like a brick shithouse but still somehow buffoonish action star who always survives the set-piece despite being a clutz or quick with a joke no matter what, often supported, lovingly, by someone more logical. Robert Downey Jr.‘s Tony Stark. Chris Pratt‘s Star-Lord. Any Thor appearance by Chris Hemsworth post-Ragnarok. The once-saintly Captain America (Chris Evans) getting a gander at “America’s ass.” Hop on over to Disney’s other mega-franchise in a galaxy far, far away and look how Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) operate next to Daisy Ridley‘s Rey. Or hell, look on the other side of the comic book fence to the globe-trotting Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) and Mera (Amber Heard) in Warner Bros.’ billion-dollar Aquaman, a movie that owes more to The Mummy than any other action blockbuster of the last 20 years.
This isn’t a gibe, mind you. The formula works; it’s the tried-and-true assembly line version of building charming leads for your action films. But there is a certain spark, an almost indescribable blend of heightened reality and relatability, that Fraser, Weisz, and Sommers created in 1999 that hasn’t been exactly replicated since.
Unfortunately, those years haven’t been kind to Fraser, either. A combination of health problems and a heartbreaking sexual assault experience took him out of the limelight for years. But he’s re-emerged recently, and that spark is not gone. I cannot urge you enough to check out DC Universe’s strange, wonderful Doom Patrol, in which Fraser breathes life into a bucket-of-bolts machine named Robotman. It’s an astounding performance in the same exact way Rick O’Connell was an astounding performance 20 years ago, proving Brendan Fraser still has the ability to take a solid-steel exterior—be it a robot or an action-hero archetype made of muscle—and make it feel undeniably human.