Look, we get it. Every studio wants to be Marvel, with its own sprawling universe of characters, interlocked fates, tie-ins, spinoffs and merchandising. Those movies have banked $400 kajillion around the world and they have about the same shelf life as Styrofoam, so they’ll be with us forever. Since the 1930s, Universal has had the lock on classic fright figures: the Invisible Man, Frankenstein’s monster, Dracula, the Wolf Man and the like. So modern-day Universal wants in, and being all about franchises and theme parks these days, they’ve disinterred the dustiest bogeyman in their backlog, the Mummy, as the gateway to their new world of gods and monsters.
They’ve stumbled in recent years, with Hugh Jackman in Van Helsing and Benicio del Toro in The Wolf Man, so this time they’ve upped the gimmick factor by casting Tom Cruise in the lead, which is a cunning tipoff: All that six screenwriters and relative novice feature director Alex Kurtzman (producer of TV’s Scorpion and Hawaii Five-O) have wrought is Mummy: Impossible.
The movie is a corporate-driven mess, utterly lacking atmosphere, tension, scares, subtlety, style or a single great performance—the very things that helped make Universal’s original shockers iconic. With a plot and characters straight out of a video game, this new version saddles us with Cruise as Sgt. Nick Morton, a cocky recon soldier and treasure-hunter scouring Iraq for antiquities along with his annoying goofball sidekick Chris Vail (Jake Johnson). The actors seem to think they’re swapping witticisms like something from an old Howard Hawks-directed adventure classic, when they’re really just in a subpar episode of Scooby Doo. Mining the same war-ravaged ruins—you know those Iraqis, this clueless film seems to believe, they ruin and shoot everything—but with an apparently more noble purpose is Egyptologist Dr. Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). They stumble upon a wonder: the ancient tomb and sarcophagus of the power-seeking Egyptian Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella, of Kingsman: The Secret Service, completely wasted here), whose pact with the god of death Set has no pull date.
Ahmanet’s resting place, more a fortress than a tomb, is submerged deep in a lake; the walls drip with mercury and crawl with giant venomous spiders. Cool! Aroused from her slumber by plot complications too silly and convoluted to describe, she does all in her power—crashing a plane with the help of hordes of demonic birds, whipping up sandstorms, sucking the life force out of victims to create a zombie-like army of mummies—to reunite with the passion of the love of her life, her “chosen one,” Cruise. All she has to do is find a certain bejeweled dagger and stab him with it and together, they will rule the worlds of the dead and undead.
Provocative ideas and images get thrown against the wall, none of them logical, none of them thrilling, none of them followed-through. It’s the kind of movie that feels so jerry-built, you sometimes wonder whether you’ve suddenly gone stupid or at least missed a beat or two. But then you realize, no, these people are making up rules and then contradicting them as they go. Which could be delightful if the movie had zip and a sense of the absurd. Cruise is supposed to be playing a romantic, rascally, womanizing Indiana Jones kind of role, but his banter with both Wallis and Johnson—let alone his Methody aw-shucks stumbling—is painfully unconvincing. Everything that Chis Pine makes look so effortless in Wonder Woman eludes Cruise here. Then again, Cruise and company have some pretty lousy lines to try and put over. How about when he warns the amorous, face-licking Mummy, “We are not going to happen” or when he defends his métier by shouting, “We are not looters! We are liberators of precious antiquities”? So even though Cruise doesn’t get to do much but run around punching dried-out corpses, he makes us long for the glory days of peak-level Kurt Russell or Sean Connery, to say nothing of Errol Flynn or Humphrey Bogart.
Russell Crowe certainly fills the screen when he shows up as Dr. Henry Jekyll—not a Universal beastie, by the way. Jekyll is the head of Prodigium, which Crowe describes as “an organization that pinpoints evil and tries to neutralize it.” He’s a drag and a snooze, mostly there to set up the rest of the upcoming franchise but, frankly, this rotting corpse of a movie dies at the end of the first act.
If you’re that hungry for a dark monster-o-rama universe where every great and tragic creature of the past gets interconnected, then, for the love of James Whale, Boris Karloff and Ernest Thesiger, go back and binge-watch the originals, then chase it with two seasons of Penny Dreadful. You’ll be way better off.