Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), the dashing hero of Alex Kurtzman’s preposterous extravaganza The Mummy, is a virile fortune hunter, the kind of roustabout who shoots first, asks questions later, and always gets the girl. He’s the kind of scoundrel who steals a treasure map from a winsome scientist (Jenny Halsey, played by Annabelle Wallis) after a passionate night together, which he uses to discover an ancient mummy’s tomb. When Jenny tries to tell him about the warning hieroglyphics inscribed therein, he scoffs, “I don’t have time for your archeologist jargon.” Nick’s not worried about ancient curses—not when there’s money to be made, and adventure to be had.
He’s not that different from the gun-slinging rascal Brendan Fraser played in the last cinematic revival of The Mummy in 1999. But, for the first time I can recall in Cruise’s career, it feels like he is really straining to make Nick the agile smoothie he’s supposed to be, trying to crank up the usually-reliable time machine he steps into for every new Mission Impossible movie only to see it die on him this time around. Halfway through The Mummy, Nick does battle with a Hulked-up Mr. Hyde (Russell Crowe), alter-ego to Dr. Jekyll, who remarks, “You’re a far younger man than I.” Crowe is in fact a year younger than Cruise, but, boy, does this movie not want you to believe that.
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.
More desperate still is the “Dark Universe” business, laid out in a series of monologues by Dr. Jekyll, who is introduced as the leader of a secret organization monitoring supernatural creatures around the world. Why Jekyll is in charge of this clandestine group, given that every 10 minutes he’s tempted to turn into the purple-faced Mr. Hyde, is not explained, but it’s a great opportunity for Crowe to play to the rafters, diving into a colorful Cockney accent as the doctor’s nasty doppelganger. This, at least, is the kind of goofy fun The Mummy is clearly aiming for, but for most of the film, it falls vastly short, devolving into a series of fight scenes, each duller than the last, with a “shocking” twist ending that sets up future films. It’s one thing for Hollywood to offer us sequels to films that weren’t really hits. But it’s quite another to try and set them up before the horse has even left the barn. The Mummy is bad enough; its promise of future editions is even tougher to take.