Universal’s ambitious plan to resurrect their Classic Monsters series under the branded banner of an interconnected Dark Universe is both friend and foe to their official launch project, a muddled, mumbling Mummy movie that’s still moderately memorable. The movie directed by Alex Kurtzman and starring Tom Cruise as a danger-loving American soldier stationed in Iraq has its fun moments and its dumb moments, but mainly trips itself up in the attempt to build for the future while telling a story in the present.
There are so many things on its mind and so few of which make much sense that the movie never quite finds its gory groove, but the cause of such problems is also the most interesting aspect of the awkwardly flailing attempt. While this is the story of Cruise’s brash Nick, who calls in an airstrike in an Iraq village and later discovers a lavish underground tomb revealed by the ensuing ground-bursting explosions, it’s also the beginning of a larger story about gods and monsters as revealed by mannered scientist Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe), who turns into a British brawler version of Mr. Hyde, complete with suddenly Cockney accent.
It’s also the story of Egyptian Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), whose efforts to give dark god Set corporeal form some millennia ago led to her death by mummification, which has left her itching for an opportunity to finish the job. There’s also a bit about English knights of the Crusades and their own tomb discovered in a newly-dug London subway tunnel. Add to all this a relatively inexperienced director trying to juggle humour, horror, and action and you have a movie that can never quite decipher what it wants to be or when.
Despite this messiness, there remains enough fun and fascination in these monster properties to keep this mediocre Mummy from completely decaying before our eyes. The presence of Jekyll, silly as his involvement is, sweetens the deal by hinting at the bigger picture. A stroll through his lab reveals jars containing such glorious oddities as a vampire skull and the forearm of Gill Man, aka the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Jekyll was never a part of the original Universal Monsters 30-movie run, but he fits well the role he's given here, of expositional mouthpiece and sombre monster hunter.
So it's the added pieces that overly clutter the movie that also save it from being a drab thrills/chills hybrid failing in each of its individual genre departments. This ironic predicament plagues the movie often, but also saves it from itself. The world that's being built and the sheer amount of construction pieces required at this early stage are far more interesting than the actual adventure that Nick is on, since the soldier's dalliances with the dead are about as convolutedly simplistic as monster mayhem can be. That doesn't make much sense, but neither does anything else that Nick gets involved in.
He has a soldier buddy played by Jake Johnson who occupies the role of unfunny comic relief and later becomes some sort of spirit guide for a confused Nick who finds himself falling under the resurrected Ahmanet’s spell. None of this goes anywhere, though, and once Johnson’s usefulness is exhausted, both as a narrative tool and a light distraction, he’s discarded unceremoniously.
Eventually, the movie gets so turned around in its examination of death as a gateway to eternal life that it seems to be making the rules up on the fly, which leads to an utterly ridiculous third act where Kurtzman seemingly doles out death sentences based merely on affiliations. Anyone on the side of good can rest assured that mortality is a fluid concept here, but align yourself with the forces of evil and it’s back to dust with you!
It’s hard to make even a shred of emotional investment in a story so hodge-podged as this one and while Cruise is still his usual charismatic self, he often feels diluted in a role that’s more generic by design than his most recent action hero parts. It doesn’t help that The Mummy tries to lazily revive a portion of Cruise’s leading man makeup that was essentially left behind more than a decade ago: his need for a beautiful love interest.
The honour goes to Annabelle Wallis here, playing an archaeologist whose recent one night stand with Nick makes for some prickly interactions between the pair. Wallis’ Jenny even gets stuck being a damsel in distress at one point, which only serves to make Kurtzman’s movie feel out of step with the times.
Boutella fares well enough, though, and a female mummy preying on the lives of men at least resembles a new direction to take this franchise in. Boutella also has a strong presence that compensates for her lack of character and the makeup team gives her a look that immediately differentiates this mummy from past Universal mummies beyond the obvious gender swap.
There’s no doubt that this is the worst of Universal’s three separate franchise-launching Mummy pics. In the past, it was the sequels to Karl Freund’s exquisite 1932 tragic romance and Stephen Sommers’ likable 1999 Indiana Jones rip-off that really ran out of good ideas, but Kurtzman’s new version appears to struggle right from the start. At the same time, its ideas aren’t entirely bad and some actually show promise.
Studios have been clambering to put together whatever connected cinematic universe they possibly can to match the success of Marvel’s multi-franchise strategy, but few have been able to make it work. Universal’s new attempt comes after years of planning other remakes of their monster properties, from a long-gestating Creature pic to a once-rumoured new take on The Bride of Frankenstein. Gathering these plans under one umbrella and making Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde a sort of guardian of ghouls is a cool concept that could lead to interesting places in future instalments.
For now, the vague promise of something better is the best this Mummy can offer. No need to bury this proposed franchise yet, but the individual stories will require more focus and imagination to justify further exploration of its universe. The original Universal Monsters, especially The Mummy, had a particularly artful bite. So far, this new version is merely gumming the property. A fresh pair of fangs would go a long way to improving the situation. Otherwise, this series will be in need of full-blown resurrection instead of mere resuscitation.