Film Review: The Mummy

First entry in Universal's "Dark Universe" of monsters finds fortune hunter Tom Cruise enslaved by an ancient Egyptian.
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Marvel Studios did it, Warner Bros. did it, and now Universal is trying to pull its characters together in a series of films, this time under its "Dark Universe" umbrella. Reworking a movie franchise that stretches back to 1932, The Mummy does what it's supposed to do with little originality and almost no life.

A dusty, creaky antique even when it was released, the first Universal Mummy with Boris Karloff slowly built a genuine sense of dread. Widely derided at the time, a series of Mummy films starting in 1999 with Brendan Fraser and others at least had a sense of humor. Universal seems to be basing this movie's style and content on its more recent poorly written, effects-heavy blockbusters like Van Helsing (Remember "steampunk"?) and The Wolfman.

A gloomy prologue reveals a crypt filled with Crusader knights somewhere in England. A flashback then tells of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), daughter of an ancient pharaoh who summoned the god of death to ascend the throne. When that failed, she was entombed in Iraq.

Which is where the modern-day story finally picks up, with fortune-hunting soldiers Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) accidentally uncovering the mummy after a raid. With them is scientist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), who helpfully explains to viewers the river of mercury, plague of spiders, dangers of awakening the dead, etc.

While flying Ahmanet's sarcophagus to England, an infected Vail turns deadly, Nick saves Jenny in the movie's single best sequence, and bystanders become killers with a touch from Ahmanet's lips. Only more like zombies than mummies.

Stepping in to deliver the remaining plot is Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), a drug addict who warns Nick that he has been selected as Ahmanet's Chosen, a sort of conduit to bring the god of death into the world. The rest of the movie is a chase through labs, dungeons, subways and underwater crypts, as soldiers, demons and girlfriends all try to pin Nick down.

Cruise plays Nick like Indiana Jones, a devil-may-care rascal with a heart of gold. The tension in the screenplay (credited to veterans David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman) is supposed to come from whether he will succumb to evil in the form of the seductive, tattooed Ahmanet or go with blonde beauty Jenny. This being a Cruise vehicle, the outcome is never seriously in doubt, despite a twist that locks him into hoped-for sequels.

Boutella actually earns some sympathy as a thwarted queen, although the script never fully unleashes her powers. Wallis pales in comparison, while Johnson is adequate but unnecessary in the Steve Zahn sidekick role. Then there's Crowe, a dull, bloated Jekyll and a risibly un-scary Hyde, who apparently will figure into future Dark Universe episodes.

Director Alex Kurtzman hits all the expected genre points and finds work for an arsenal of special-effects technicians. The way The Mummy veers from camp to serious, from competent to messy, from coherent to crazy, suggests that executives had more input than Kurtzman on the movie's final outcome. In hindsight, wringing every last cent out of old studio properties may not be the best approach to launching a new franchise.

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