I had fun with “The Mummy,” but I don’t know that I can defend it.
Universal’s attempt to reinvigorate its stable of horror icons is a mess, with a weak plot, paper-thin characters, and Jake Johnson stumbling in from another movie altogether. But Tom Cruise is as charismatic as always, there are some decent action beats, a knowing sense of humor, and Russell Crowe devouring the scenery so rabidly that I’m sure it left him with indigestion. It’s a silly film that knows exactly what it is, and even if I can’t call it good, at least it comes with a bit more personality than your run-of-the-mill tentpole.
The film isn’t really a remake of the 1999 Brendan Fraser film or even the 1932 Boris Karloff one, so much as a way to take the concept of a supernatural mummy and fit it into the modern “cinematic universe” mold. Cruise is Nick Morton, a U.S. soldier in Iraq who dabbles in pilfering antiquities for the black market with his partner, Chris (Johnson). On one of his adventures, he helps an archaeologist (Annabelle Wallis) uncover a buried tomb containing the sarcophagus of an evil Egyptian queen. As they’re flying their find back to Britain, their plane crashes. Nick dies but wakes up in the morgue, summoned to life by the evil queen Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). He finds himself on the run from Ahmanet, cursed until he can destroy the dagger that she wants to use to kill him, which apparently brings a demon into the world. It’s all a bit confusing, so thankfully Crowe shows up to explain things. He’s Dr. Henry Jekyll (along with his alter ego, Mr. Hyde), who leads a secret organization dedicated to tracking down evil of all forms and destroying it. Imagine SHIELD, but with less Samuel L. Jackson and more Satan.
“The Mummy” doesn’t just attempt to tell a supernatural horror adventure, it wants to jump-start a franchise on par with the Marvel and DC Universes (although, to be fair, Universal’s monsters were doing the team-up thing well before Captain America and Tony Stark). As such, it’s a convoluted mess. Ahmanet’s plan and goals are relatively simple, but the film feels it needs to tell us her backstory no fewer than three times. And yet, it’s never quite clear what her powers or strengths are. She’s subdued easily by mercury, but can still summon scarabs, crows and her dead victims to do her bidding. Sometimes it appears she wants to flat-out murder Nick; other times, it seems like she has something more steamy in mind. And Dr. Jekyll’s secret agency might be an effective backbone for this series, but really it serves no purpose here other than unending exposition. It’s Cruise and Wallis’ characters (I use the term loosely) who do all the work.
It’s all stupid, I get it. And yet, like the “Fast and the Furious” movies (though far less successfully), “The Mummy” knows how stupid it is and acknowledges it. It’s got a refreshing sense of humor about itself. There’s a fight in an old church where Cruise’s character punches and kicks through evil skeletons, each time baffled by what’s going on. His drunken reaction to being dead-then-not is also funny. The film’s chases and fight sequences nimbly walk the line between light comedy, monster horror and adrenaline-laced action. There’s a gravity-defying plane crash that’s an all-timer and an underwater chase that’s suitably creepy. Director Alex Kurtzman doesn’t really do anything new, and a script with some stronger dialogue and a bit more ingenuity might have elevated this into something more solid, but as is it’s diverting and fun.Cruise is probably the greatest movie star ever, one who I’ve never seen give less than 100 percent to a role, even if the movie is terrible. He’s fun here, as the rogue Nick. Pursued by an evil monster who wants to kill him, it’s fun to watch Cruise play the befuddled, terrified damsel in distress, at lest until the third act decides he needs to become a hero. In this and the latest “Mission: Impossible” films, Cruise has excelled at giving his heroes a human dose of nerves, which leavens the superheroics with a welcome dose of comedy. But as charismatic as he is, don’t let that fool you into thinking Nick is a character. This film paid for the Tom Cruise Hero Package, and the only reason you’re not going to leave complaining that you don’t know anything about who Nick Morton is is because the actor’s likable enough to coast on his charm.
The rest of the cast is more of a mixed bag. Wallis, in particular, is failed as the film’s love interest, an archaeologist who had a one-night stand with Nick and also…knows a lot about mummies, I guess? She’s revealed to be working with Jekyll’s organization, but usually seems pretty in the dark herself about what it actually does. Johnson is a funny actor and his role as Nick’s sidekick, killed by the mummy but resurrected to be her slave, is aiming for the humor of a similar role in “An American Werewolf in London.” But the script’s jokes land with a thud and the usually likable Johnson comes off like the annoying bro bud in a stoner comedy.
Fairing much better is Boutella, effectively evil and threatening as the film’s villain. She spends much of the film chained to four pillars, but the actress makes her an intimidating antagonist nonetheless. Crowe, the film’s highlight in his minor role, is having a blast playing Jekyll/Hide, morphing between soft-spoken English and a bluster-filled cockney accent when he transforms. I’m not sure that the reveal of his organization is going to be enough to hang a multi-film franchise on, but I’m eager to see him throw down with the likes of Johnny Depp and Javier Bardem in “The Invisible Man” and “Bride of Frankenstein.”
There’s enough that works in “The Mummy” to keep it from ever being dull, even if it barely rises to “good.” It’s a creaky mixed bag, but it delivers the fun when it needs to. Is it a movie to rush out and see on opening night? No. But as a Saturday matinee, you could do worse.
There’s your pull-quote, Universal.