Universal tries to get back into the classic-monster biz with the help of Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe in this Alex Kurtzman-directed adventure.
Some have noted that Universal must hate to be opening Alex Kurtzman’s The Mummy in the second week of Wonder Woman‘s run, with that hit sure to suck millions out of its box-office haul. But Wonder Woman isn’t all bad for the newly launched “enterprise,” dubbed Dark Universe, with which the studio hopes to exploit characters it introduced way back in the 1920-’50s: After all, it proves that such a series of interrelated movies (like DC’s “extended universe”) can still succeed after the well has been poisoned by outings so terrible any executive with taste would have pulled the plug. Sure, it’s hard to muster anything like desire for another Dark Universe flick after seeing this limp, thrill-free debut. But who knows? Maybe shifting gears to a female protagonist in 2019’s Bride of Frankenstein will do the trick.
Then again, the fact that Uni’s recent D.U. hype mentions only the Bride’s groom, to be played by Javier Bardem, may show it’s more heavily invested in big-name dudes than in making heroes of women. Dudes like Russell Crowe, whose Dr. Jekyll apparently will be the glue holding these pictures together as a series. Or like Tom Cruise, who gave his all to one long-running franchise by reviving Mission: Impossible, and, judging from The Mummy, should perhaps not be asked to do so again.
Weirdly out of place here, Cruise brings little daring and less charm to the film, though to be fair to the actor, his character’s a stiff: Nick Morton, an Army sergeant who secretly loots antiquities from Iraqi war zones, might have been a charismatic antihero in Drafts One or Five of a script credited to David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman (with story by Jon Spaihts, Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet). But what made it to the screen is a watered-down version of “irresistible rogue” with all the irresistibility trimmed away.
Accompanied by partner in crime Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), Morton is in Iraq pursuing treasures promised on a map he stole from archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis of Peaky Blinders). Halsey catches up to Morton around the time his misadventures expose an ancient burial site, and she’s none too happy that he seduced her just to steal that map. After some low-stakes bickering, the two find themselves in the presence of a sarcophagus buried in, um, a giant pool of mercury. It’s an Egyptian coffin, interred far away in ancient Mesopotamia, so that’d be big news even before the gang grasps the supernatural nature of the desiccated corpse residing within.
To summarize: The body is that of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who was the sole heir to Egypt’s throne before her Pharaoh dad found a second wife and had a son. Furious that she wouldn’t be Queen, she vowed revenge, killing all three and making a pact with the bad-news Egyptian god Set. But before she could sacrifice a lover, who was to become the god’s human embodiment, she was captured and “mummified alive.” The ceremonial dagger with which she intended to make the sacrifice was split into two parts, putting its magic powers on hold until the about-to-wake-up Ahmanet can put the pieces together again.
Over in England, one piece of that dagger has just been found in a crypt dating back to the Second Crusade. It is taken by Crowe’s Jekyll, who seems to be the Dark Universe’s version of the Marvel movies’ Nick Fury: a behind-the-scenes player who has been fighting all kinds of evil for a long time, and who pops up when screenplays need exposition or a tease for the next film in the franchise. (Where Fury had secrets of a military-industrial-complex sort, Jekyll has a monstrous alter ego he must continually take drugs to subdue.)
Somewhere between the discovery of the sarcophagus and the moment its inhabitant crawls out to start devouring the living, Ahmanet’s immortal spirit develops a fixation on Morton, deciding he’s “my chosen.” She gets into the poor jerk’s mind, forcing him to help her reassemble that dagger. If he understood that she planned to kill him with it, Morton might put up a bit more resistance to the mind-control.
It’s no surprise that the action to come has vastly more in common with the CGI bombast of the Brendan Fraser-starring Mummy films than the quiet, slow-creeping horror of the version Karl Freund directed in 1932. What is surprising is that this film’s action makes one slightly nostalgic for the 1999 incarnation, or at least prompts one to ask if it wasn’t maybe more fun than we gave it credit for. So much of the action takes place in monotonous half-light; so little of it displays even the ambition to show audiences something new — unless we count the Mummy’s eyes, which have two irises each, for no apparent reason other than somebody thought that would look cool on a movie poster. The most involving scene by far shows Morton swimming through underwater crypts, trying to save Halsey from Ahmanet before he either drowns or is destroyed by the zombie warriors swimming behind him.
But that sequence lasts just a minute or two, and is immediately followed by a Morton/Mummy standoff in which Cruise fails, rather spectacularly, to wring a laugh out of a kiss-off line one hopes neither Koepp, nor McQuarrie, nor Kussman would admit to having written. It’s the kickoff of a climax that requires more heroic self-sacrifice from Morton than we have any reason to believe he’s capable of. Unless, that is, we have a financial interest in the sequel set up by Jekyll’s longer-than-necessary final voiceover.
Production companies: Sean Daniel Company, Secret Hideout
Cast: Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Screenwriters: David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman
Producers: Sarah Bradshaw, Sean Daniel, Alex Kurtzman, Chris Morgan
Executive producers: Jeb Brody, Roberto Orci
Director of photography: Ben Seresin
Production designers: Jon Hutman, Dominic Watkins
Costume designer: Penny Rose
Editors: Gina Hirsch, Paul Hirsch, Andrew Mondshein
Composer: Brian Tyler
Casting director: Lucinda Syson
Rated PG-13, 110 minutes