Of all the CGI-ed supernatural forces slung in Alex Kurtzman's "The Mummy" (and, believe me, there are a lot), none can compete with the spectral spectacle of Tom Cruise, at 54.
He and his abs are almost creepily ageless. So it's almost fitting that in one of the typically bonkers scenes in "The Mummy," Cruise awakes naked and unscathed alongside cadavers in a morgue, where he bewilderedly removes the tag attached to his toe. Indefatigable and un-killable, Cruise really is the undead. He's like the anti-Steve Buscemi.
Yet Cruise and "The Mummy" — the opening salvo in Universal's bid to birth its "Dark Universe" monster movie franchise — are a poor fit, and not the good kind, like "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein." There's plenty of standard, cocky Tom Cruise leading man stuff here: running, swimming, daredevil airplane acrobatics, more running. But his relentless forward momentum is sapped by the convoluted monster mishmash that engulfs "The Mummy," a movie conceived and plotted like the monster version of Marvel. Increasingly, Cruise — like big-budget movies, themselves — is running in circles.
He plays Nick Morton, a roguish Army sergeant who plunders antiquities from Iraq with his partner Chris Vail (Jake Johnson). In a remote village they, along with archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), unearth a giant Egyptian tomb bathed in mercury. In it lies the Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) who was mummified alive (imagine that wrapping job) after trying to unleash the evil Egyptian god of Set while killing her Pharaoh father, his second wife and the newborn baby that would deny her the throne. Naturally, she's going to get loose.
Hers and other backstories are shown as "The Mummy" stumbles out of its grave, vainly trying to organize the story around two burial sites (the other is in London), the strange visions that begin plaguing Morton, and a quixotic (or merely capitalistic) gambit to stitch together a unifying principle for the Dark Universe. Mysterious apocalyptic happenings (a swarm of crows, a horde of rats, occasional ghouls) prompt a series of helter-skelter chase scenes that eventually lead Morton and Halsey to Prodigium, a stealth organization led by the dapper Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe) that controls monstrous outbreaks, including those of its schizophrenic leader.
Prodigium would seem to be the connecting tissue for Universal's shared universe, with plans for "Frankenstein," ''The Invisible Man," ''The Creature From the Black Lagoon" and more in the works. Much of "The Mummy" hinges on Boutella's vengeful and vaguely misogynistic monster (she for some reason needs a man — Morton, it turns out — to really do damage). But much of the film endeavors to set up the characters — maybe even famous phantoms — to come.
What the supposed value of having these movies "share" a universe is, I'm not sure. Movies aren't sandboxes and the only time I remember enjoying a character connect films was Michael Keaton's Ray Nicolette popping up in the Elmore Leonard adaptations "Out of Sight" and "Jackie Brown."
Where these films could be fun, though, is seeing a talented star play a big, theatrical character that would honor the ghosts of Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp are already lined up, so who knows? But the desperate need to graft them into a larger comic-book-like "world" — and a thinly conceived one, at that — suggests there won't be much room for any actor to breathe.
For now we're cursed with "The Mummy," a messy and muddled product lacking even the carefree spirit of the Brendan Fraser "Mummy" trilogy. There are moments of humor in the script by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dylan Kussman, but Cruise isn't the one (maybe Chris Pratt?) to pull off aloofly referring to the mummy as "the chick in the box."
Almost to the degree that he was in "The Edge of Tomorrow," Cruise is put through the ringer. A spiraling cargo plane spins him like laundry. He careens through a double-decker bus. His rib cage is yanked. Cruise remains, as ever, eminently game. But he, like us moviegoers, might have to starting wondering: What god have we angered?
"The Mummy," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for "violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity." Running time: 110 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.
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