Universal Pictures aims to relaunch its classic monster franchise with a star-studded reboot of The Mummy, in theaters now. As the first film in the newly announced "Dark Universe" series, this adventure needs to be spooky and spectacular while grounding a cinematic world that audiences will hunger to wander through film after film. Regrettably, this monster movie is instead astonishingly dull, stylistically dreary and a waste of nearly every talent in it.
Tom Cruise stars as Nick, a soldier/thief who sneaks away from his assignments to snatch precious ancient artifacts to sell on the black market. After bedding and betraying the trust of beautiful archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis), Nick pickpockets her map to a mythical tomb. Accompanied by bad intentions and his wise-cracking cowardly accomplice Chris (Jake Johnson), this reckless hero ventures into the cryptic cave and accidentally resurrects the Egyptian warrior princess turned evil undead mummy Ahmanet (Kingsman: The Secret Service's Sofia Boutella). Basically, thanks to Nick and his single-minded selfishness, Ahmanet is free to make a suffocating sandbox out of modern London.
Hoping to thwart Ahmanet's scheme for world domination, barrel-chested and bearded gentleman Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) leads Prodigium, his monster-battling secret agency, against her. However, it's Nick who is fated to face off against the rampaging revenant he's unearthed. His is the story of a selfish man redeemed by sacrifice and the love of a good woman. Its a beloved Hollywood cliche, but here its execution is horrendously flawed. For one thing, Nick is introduced with nothing resembling a likable character trait. He's greedy; caring only for money, not family, not friends, not even his own safety. So, the film cruises solely on Cruise's charm to make him compelling -- but the 54-year-old leading man is wildly miscast. While he may not look his age, Cruise reads as old enough that Nick's actions seem less like the mistakes of reckless youth, and more the shocking trespasses of an overgrown fool. Frankly, it's pathetic to see a character who is in at least his late 40s behaving this brazenly stupid and rash. Making matters worse, Cruise looks better suited to play the 32-year-old Wallis's father than her love interest. And the pair's chemistry is entirely inert, making the thread's essential romantic subplot a critical failure.
At play within The Mummy are two far more intriguing tales, but the six-person team of screenwriters (which includes director Alex Kurtzman) opted use these as backdrop to bolster its ho-hum hero. Ripe with passion and awash in blood, the tale of the titular mummy is intriguing and harrowing, wrapping in brutal heartbreak, dark ambition and gruesome vengeance. Yet this is relegated to the dialogue-free introduction, voiced over by a brooding Dr. Jekyll. From there, Boutella's blazing eyes, sharp smirk and commanding physicality are cruelly wedged into playing the supernatural villainess whose powers are less determined by sense of exposition, and more by exactly how weak or powerful the screenwriters need her to be for the Nick thread to work. Sometimes, she can sense mystical McGuffins, bend mortal minds to her will, and transform all of the glass windows in London into bursts of shimmering sand. But for all her power, she needs the help of an impulsive, grave-robbing rogue. Every scene without her is worse for it; again and again we're stranded with a flailing Cruise.
Nick's determined disinterest in Egyptian history, archaeology -- or really anything beyond his own self-interest -- makes him a bizarre character to carry the narrative that demands excitement about the first two. He gets huffy over words like "sarcophagus" and "hieroglyphics," and arrogantly insists he knows the best way to handle this ancient evil, ignoring the experts while endangering them. All this suggests Universal has little faith a mainstream audience caring much about mummy mythos. So why center the launch of Dark Universe on the mummy's story at all?
It's easy to imagine a slightly tweaked version of this movie, where the hero is the archaeologist like Indiana Jones, passionate about their work and about doing good. Instead, The Mummy divides Jones's traits. Nick gets his gender, dexterity, and smug charm. Jenny gets his love for history, respect of relics, and innate cynicism toward the supernatural. Yet she's relegated to being just the know-it-all love interest/damsel in distress. Her main purposes is to deliver necessary exposition, and repeatedly nearly die. Despite Wallis's best efforts to infuse Jenny with spirit and a steely determination, this brilliant blonde is nakedly a tool for the plot, instead of a character in her own right.
Most galling thing of all is at The Mummy falters when it comes to engaging action or monster spectacle. Sure, there are giant swarming spiders, city-swallowing sandstorms and zombie attacks. And rather than the stilted shuffling classically associated with a mummy, Boutella struts with an alluring mix of purpose and menace. But the blend of practical makeup and visual effects is shockingly sloppy, transforming her from a flesh-and-blood terror into a too slick and unrealistically rubbery CGI atrocity. Without landing a photo-real look, this Dark Universe can never dream to haunt moviegoers like the practical effects-favoring originals of the 20th century.
Still, even amid so much mess and CGI muck, there are some highlights. Chief among them is Boutella, a star on the rise whose shine will not be dimmed, even by The Mummy's bland brand of CGI rot and carefully clinging scraps of cloth. With a dizzying verve, the Algerian actress makes her mummy beguiling and terrifying, snatching every scene away from whoever's cursed to share the screen with her.
As the plucky comic relief, Johnson is fun when flustered, but at his best once Chris is morphed into a sardonic ghoul who haunts and taunts Nick from beyond the grave. It's a less-than-subtle nod to Universal's iconic An American Werewolf in London and its undead bestie/guide. Yet I welcome this theatrical theft, because it's one of the few elements that brings this Mummy to life. Meanwhile, Crowe clearly has a grand old time playing Jekyll and Hyde. And the latter particularly entertaining, reimagined as a British bruiser who thirsts for coarse talk and a sprawling brawl. For his part Cruise, gives his all, baring much of his body to be ogled, and risking it in a slew of stunts from horseback riding to fight scenes and frightful falls But he fails to land a single punchline. Miscast and misdirected, Cruise can't conquer the towering monstrosity that is Kurtzman's ugly, senseless, and boring monster movie.
The Mummy is now in theaters.