Universal picked a good lead to kick off its Dark Universe franchise, but that has more to do with the fact that Tom Cruise has a bizarre charm that can defy almost any script than it has to do with the launching of the instant classic “universe” they were hoping for.
In this version of the classic monster story, we enter with a fair amount of backstory surrounding Egyptian Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) who made a deal with the God Set in exchange for unbelievable power, and then killed her family. Luckily, someone stepped in to thwart her dastardly plans, but because she, apparently, made herself a special kind of immortal, she was buried in a secret tomb 1,000 miles from Egypt.
Enter modern day scamps and antiquities thieves, Nick (Cruise) and Chris (Jake Johnson). Working their positions as scouts in the military, apparently with free reign over Iraq and the surrounding area, they stumble onto a map that they believe will lead them to a treasure. They uncover said Egyptian tomb, and since there shouldn’t be anything Egyptian here, there’s a lot of interest. Besides, Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) turns up pretty quickly looking for the map Nick stole. Thus, we unearth the monster we’ve all been looking for, and it turns out she’s looking to complete that long ago ritual, and now Nick is her chosen victim.
There’s actually a lot to like about The Mummy, but most of it involves Cruise and/or Cruise and Johnson. When the film focuses on the actual effort, which is a dark, camp adventure, it delivers a throwback to a different slice of cinematic heaven. The first 30 minutes give you about all you could hope for from something reaching back to Allan Quatermain while mixing in whatever frights you can manage by dipping the thing in ink. There are solid notes along the way as well, such as Cruise and Johnson’s “sink dance death talk,” but the best of them are the campiest, and they’re surrounded by franchise obligations and lazy genre bullet points.
Cruise manages to pull a lot of fun into the role, even if the lion’s share of what he’s able to do is a result of straining against the material, and that’s probably enough to get most people through this one without complaint. Unfortunately, this has the feel of exactly what you’d get when the producers throw up their hands and say they’ll just direct the damn thing themselves. Which is exactly what we have with Alex Kurtzman directing. Kurtzman also has “screen story by” credit, which, for the uninitiated, means he’s one of the suits who tells the screenwriters what they better put in. That manifests itself in a lot of ways (such as the “swimming skeletons” FX team we already paid, so we need to fit their work in somewhere), but is never more distracting than in the establishment of Dr. Jeckyll (Russell Crowe) and his team of evil fighters – read, long arc ties.
It’s all quite a shame, this movie by committee aiming at a decade-long money grab, because there’s a lot of potential here. Even it’s key elements could use a little work, because a villain that is absolutely indestructible isn’t really a reinvention of The Mummy and quickly becomes boring, but it lets you know that there is a fun action film in there somewhere, just waiting for a pause in the future movie build up. It ends up a movie that seems somewhat scared to let itself be, opting instead to try to be everything.
Nick running. Nick waking up on the table in the morgue. Nick getting creeped out. Nick running. Nick having an uncomfortable conversation with what may or may not be a hallucination. These things all make the film worth the viewing time. But, the ham-fisted over-exploration of Jekyll’s laboratory (or whatever), and the attempts to create tension around a monster that we’ve already made powerful beyond limit drag the adventure down and make the film’s third act little but a boring plod through steps we all know must come.
Still, there’s fun to be had, if you can sidestep wondering about world creation that has Gods who just sat on the sidelines for 3,000 years. It’s just a little disappointing to realize that a “kind of strong” mummy who couldn’t manage so much as a slow walk could scare the hell out of you, but this one is freakishly powerful and ultimately ho-hum.