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Icons revisited: (l-r) Campbell and Davis in Bubba Ho-tep.

That’s All Right, Mummy
By Ann Morrow

Bubba Ho-tep
Directed by Don Coscarelli

Not many movies can get a laugh simply by flashing a dictionary entry on the screen, but that’s what happens at the start of the thoughtfully weird Bubba Ho-tep. A Ho-tep, we’re informed, is a member or descendent of Egyptian royalty; a bubba is a “male from the South.” The evil presence in this absurdly entertaining B-movie is both: A vengeful mummy who is reanimated in a creek in east Texas. Conveniently enough for this “soul sucker” run amok, the creek borders a run-down nursing home full of frail victims whose untimely demises go unnoticed by the callous staff. In addition to being bizarrely funny and original, Bubba Ho-tep may be the first movie of its kind with a subtext of elder empowerment.

Directed by horrormeister Don Coscarelli (Phantasm) and adapted from the short story by cult sci-fi writer Joe R. Lansdale, the film combines cheesy frights with rueful comedy and conspiracy-theory satire. The egotistical mummy, who adorns himself in cowboy boots and a 10-gallon hat, is dubbed Bubba Ho-tep by Elvis Presley. That’s right: Elvis is eking out his old age in a Texas rest home. Seems that the King secretly traded places with a talented Elvis impersonator because he wanted to escape from the imprisonment of his fame. “The music wasn’t mine anymore,” he explains during a flashback to his decadent years. Then, after falling off a stage and going into a coma, Elvis woke up years later to find himself trapped in the nursing home, where no one believes his incredible story. But the audience will—thanks to a deadpan yet convincing, even moving portrayal by Bruce Campbell (Ash in the Evil Dead movies) as the decrepit but eminently lucid Elvis.

While enduring the condescending fussing of the home’s nurse (sharply comic Ella Joyce), Elvis ruminates on his misspent life and present infirmities. He wonders about Priscilla and the daughter he never got to know, and about how fame and fortune can’t stave off death and decay. Elvis’ interior musings pertain to anyone with regrets, yet the wistful narration isn’t at all depressing: The King is still an ace entertainer, and that encompasses his caustic observations. And besides, when Elvis is attacked by a giant scarab and vigorously defends himself with bed-tray utensils, you have to admire his gumption—as well as the film’s dankly loony, almost Lynchian visuals.

Campbell’s partner in dignified absurdism is Ossie Davis, who plays Jack, Elvis’ friend from down the hall. Jack has his own incredible life story regarding his former existence as Jack Kennedy, the president (he was “dyed” black by Lyndon Johnson). Joining forces, Elvis and Jack investigate the mysterious murders and hatch a plan to rid the nursing home of its foul predator, which rises out of the creek like Michael Jackson in his Thriller video. Once involved in a course of action, both men become newly invigorated. Elvis even breaks out his white spangled jumpsuit in anticipation of a Ho-tep showdown. And when the not-dead King and the undead king go mano-a-mano, Elvis vindicates his humiliation in all those silly action movies. As this fearlessly wacky romp proves, Decrepit Elvis is just as deserving of commemoration as Young Elvis and Fat Elvis.

Stars on Ice

Directed by Gavin O’Connor

Miracle, the true-life story of the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s iconic gold-medal win at Lake Placid in 1980, is just about as lean and nonsense-free as you could want a sports movie to be. There’s no hype, no melodrama, and no false modesty. And since the ending is already known, the film wisely concentrates on how it was that an unexceptional collection of collegiate hockey players were able to defeat the unstoppable Soviet squad. And the reason, as director Gavin O’Connor makes compellingly clear, is coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell). A former player who narrowly missed his own chance at an Olympic match in the 1960s, Herb uses his inside-and-out knowledge of the sport to get the very best out of his boys (even by athletic standards, the team is young).

As the coach explains early on, the most effective tactic of the Russian Red Army team—whose last season tallied 48 wins out of 48 games—is intimidation. They know they’re going to win—and so do their opponents. Herb then pushes his team to the breaking point in preparation for a counteroffensive based on stamina, both physical and mental. In fact, he uses psychological profiling to help him winnow down the team’s candidates, by identifying those who will best hold up under intense pressure. These intensive training methods (“the legs feed the will,” intones Herb while drilling the players until they literally drop from exhaustion) are snappily dramatized by O’Connor, who also knows how to push a sequence to its maximum effectiveness. Another astute move on O’Connor’s part is to set up the sociopolitical background (the Iran hostage crisis, gas shortages, inflation, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) that made the U.S. win a source of jubilant pride for Americans of all stripes, and then leave it as backdrop, until finally Herb himself can relax enough to take in the symbolic importance of the team’s victory.

One of the film’s most satisfying elements is Herb’s standing with the players, who begin by underestimating him, learn to loathe him, and eventually develop a deep admiration for him. Herb uses trials by fire to unify the boys—hometown stars who bring their egos and rivalries onto the ice—into a well-oiled machine. Although the use of big softy Noah Emmerich as the assistant coach and team confidant is a bit obvious, Herb’s emotional remove from the players underscores his growing bond with Jim Craig, a troubled goalie with untapped potential (played by magnetic TV actor Eddie Cahill, a lanky, introverted version of the young Mel Gibson). The only sop to sports-movie clichés are the scenes of Herb at home with his assertive yet supportive wife, Patty. Fortunately, this necessarily abbreviated character is played by the always watchable Patricia Clarkson.

The cinematography is as hard-driving as the plot, with fluidly concise shots of the puck in action. The camera saves its razzle-dazzle for the Olympics, expressing fever-pitch excitement with documentary-style élan. The match’s only interpersonal touch, and it’s a good one, is the tense eyeballing between Herb and the haughty Russian coach. Still, most of the credit for Miracle’s mounting exhilaration belongs to Russell, whose own drive is undiminished by jowls, puffy eyes, and a Howard Cosell-type hairpiece. He’s utterly convincing as the kind of guy who can go the distance against the longest odds. But then, Russell knows about being an underdog. His Oscar-caliber performance in last year’s Dark Blue went largely unnoticed, as has his evolution from action hunk to consummately versatile actor. One of these years, it’s going to be Russell who takes home the gold.

—Ann Morrow

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