There’s a lot riding on “The Mummy.” Universal Pictures has laid out an entire interconnected league of monster franchises to follow the reboot opening this week. (It’s already big in South Korea.) Johnny Depp’s signed on for “The Invisible Man.” Russell Crowe will headline a Jekyll and Hyde act, which is introduced in “The Mummy.” Javier Bardem is on deck as Frankenstein’s Monster. “The Bride of Frankenstein” will be followed by everything from the Creature from the Black Lagoon to a new Phantom of the Opera to a fresh Dracula and a souped-up and no doubt extremely buff Hunchback of Notre Dame.
These titles are golden, and despite the 19th-century literary roots of several of these, the economic impetus comes from Universal’s legendary 1930s horror classics, the stuff of silvery nitrate nightmares. All the sadder, then, that director Alex Kurtzman’s “Mummy” movie starring Tom Cruise is terrible — more calamitous and grating than any of the 1999-2008 “Mummy” outings by a wide margin. I haven’t had this little fun at an SSM (Stupid Summer Movie) in several summers, though full disclosure: I have yet to see “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.” Maybe in the next life. Wouldn’t that be something? If we died and then came back as film critics assigned to a purgatorial rotation of “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels?
The idea, I think, with “The Mummy” was to give unfamiliar audiences every kind of modern, effects-heavy horror fantasy in one. Cruise plays Nick, wisecracking American belligerence incarnate, and therefore, in 2017 America, at least, an instant turnoff. He’s a U.S. Army soldier with a sideline as a soldier of fortune, ripping off precious artifacts for resale while ripping off Indiana Jones so blatantly that he might as well be called Indiana Smith.
Co-star Crowe drew the short straw and, in reams of introductory voice-over narration that may still be going on, he explains the background. In 1127 England, a Crusader knight’s tomb was buried beneath the future London. The movie proper gets going, and immediately gets into tone problems, in modern-day northern Iraq, where Cruise, sidekick Chris (Jake Johnson of “New Girl”) and the purring British archeologist and utterly perfunctory love interest Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) stumble upon the entombed Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). Back in the day Ahmanet was in line to rule Egypt, but sexism being what it is (i.e., a thing of the past, obviously) she was passed over, and went on a revenge killing spree, and did a deal with the God of Death involving a dagger and an all-powerful ruby. After a comic-relief airstrike and a slew of dead insurgents, Ahmanet’s free, and Nick is her human conduit to global domination.
Everywhere this “chick in a box” goes (Nick’s nickname for her), superfast, zombielike mummies spring to life and do her bidding.
Eventually the screenplay credited to David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman brings the story back to London. There Dr. Jekyll (Crowe) is heading up a league of his own, investigating and vanquishing a host of unruly gods and monsters waiting for their whack at the franchise.
The script is genuinely confused in the way it doles out information, and keeps looping back into Nick’s visions of ancient Egypt. As an established screenwriter, second-time feature filmmaker Kurtzman knows his way around several brand names (“Transformers,” “Star Trek,” “Spider-Man”). But his facility with digitally swathed action is routine at best, visual chaos at worst. The mayhem in “The Mummy” feels desperate, mistimed, grueling in the wrong way (the film’s violence is infinitely less appropriate for preteens than that of “Wonder Woman”). And in the climactic scenes of London half-destroyed by supernatural terrorists, it’s also a sad victim of bad timing.
I never thought I’d miss Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz’s wide-eyed facility with droll camp quite so much. I liked two things about “The Mummy.” The design idea and digital execution of the mummy’s eyes, both sporting two separate pupils, works nicely. And the way Crowe pronounces the phrase “the past,” which goes past “the past” all the way into “the pust,” really is stunning. Now that’s an upper-crust dialect! The rest of the movie is a pain in the sarcophagus. I fear that it will anger the gods.
Directed by: Alex Kurtzman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance, Marwan Kenzari, Russell Crowe
Running time: 107 minutes