The Mummy is the first entry in a planned franchise from Universal called the “Dark Universe,” which will knit together all the studio’s classic monsters of the ’20s and ’30s (it even gets its own logo, Marvel-style, at the start of the film). Half of it is devoted to creaky exposition and labored set-up for future pictures, including the appearance of Crowe as Jekyll and Hyde; the other half is given over to Cruise, who bounces from one high-octane action set-piece to the next with a manic glint in his eyes. As an entry in that movie star’s personal canon, it’s a fascinating misfire. As the beginning of an ongoing series, it’s an utter bore, one with only the faintest grasp of what made Universal’s monster pictures so iconic all those decades ago.
For one, it helps to have a good monster in place. Sofia Boutella, so charming as an alien warrior in last year’s Star Trek Beyond, here plays Ahmanet, an Egyptian princess who was mummified alive after murdering her family and making a pact with Set, the god of the dead. Unlike the lovelorn priest Imhotep (the subject of the iconic 1932 Mummy and its 1999 remake), Ahmanet lacks for personal motivation, seeking only to revive Set and unleash hell on earth. As such, she’s a pretty dull baddie for Nick to match wits with, and the film tries to coast on the exotic appeal of a female mummy to help define her villainy.
The whole thing comes off as a lamely sexist piece of quasi-titillation, as Ahmanet writhes around various sets skimpily clad in bandages, and sucks the life out of her various victims by giving them a deadly kiss. Boutella is a gifted actor, but Ahmanet is little more than a prop, spending much of the movie either imprisoned or inside Nick’s mind (having cursed him when he accidentally freed her from her tomb). The core of any good monster movie is that you’re perhaps abashedly rooting for said monster’s success, but Ahmanet is too vapid a character to earn the audience’s support.
That isn’t to suggest that Nick is much more likable, however. He opens the film by rashly assailing a bunch of nameless, faceless insurgents in Iraq (who are shown only as turban-clad warlords firing AK-47s at precious antiquities). He and his partner Chris (Jake Johnson) then call in an air strike on the beleaguered Iraqi village they’re attacking, revealing Ahmanet’s tomb, but the whole thing is played as a lark. These colonialist antics barely hold up in the period settings of the earlier Mummy films; in 2017, the entire thing just feels deeply embarrassing.
To the vague credit of The Mummy’s script (written by Kurtzman and luminaries like Jenny Lumet, Christopher McQuarrie, Jon Spaihts, and David Koepp), Nick is supposed to be unlikable at the start—at least, up to a point. He’s presented as the kind of archetype Ahmanet would be drawn to for her nefarious purposes, an amoral thief, but the script then tries to follow an arc of personal redemption as Nick matches wits with her. It doesn’t work, and Cruise’s performance only grows more wild by the instant. That can work in films like the Mission Impossible series, where his intensity is better counter-balanced by the comic relief of his sidekicks, but here it just feels increasingly frantic.