Curse the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ever since a smug Tony Stark and his team of leather-clad meatbags took over the world with an outrageously entertaining series of interlocking movie franchises, studio execs across the multiverse have been racing to kick-start their own interconnected cash cow.
Universal’s The Mummy is just the latest to leap onto the super-powered bandwagon. Aiming to lump together classic movie monsters – Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, Dracula – into what’s been unimaginatively dubbed the Dark Universe, this reboot of a reboot has the unenviable task of delivering a high octane summer blockbuster that can compete with the established heavy hitters while also setting up a whole new world where well-known literary monsters actually exist. It’s hardly surprising, then, that this speedy hatchet job most closely resembles something cooked up in the lab of Dr Jekyll (here played by apparent Ray Winstone impersonator Russell Crowe): a mind-boggling miss-mash of competing personalities that can never work together as a satisfying whole.
Things start off in promising fashion. Opening with a lively sequence in which Tom Cruise’s Indian Jones-type rogue Nick Morton is found fleeing ISIS gunfire after liberating a precious antiquity from the terror group’s Iraqi stronghold. The grace of a US military airstrike saves Morton from certain death and also uncovers the hidden tomb of Amhanet (Sofia Boutella), an Egyptian princess buried alive after selling her soul to the evil god Set in return for power.
Despite the obvious warning signs (Amhanet’s tomb is submerged in mercury and guarded by giant spiders), Morton and ambitious archeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) extract the sarcophagus and prepare to transport it back to Blighty (lord knows we love a stolen artefact). Naturally, events quickly take a turn for the worst when the plane is bombarded by a swarm of angry crows, causing a crash that seemingly kills Cruise’s character mere minutes into the movie he supposedly leads. And that’s where things start to get really weird…
The Mummy’s biggest problem is that it can never quite decide what it wants to be. In part, it’s a zombie horror movie, with Boutella’s resurrected queen feeding on unsuspecting humans to regenerate her decomposed body and using her nebulous powers to recruit an army of the undead to aid her ascension to power. But it’s also a brisk and breezy action adventure, complete with plenty of daring set pieces, as Cruise sets about locating a set of mystical McGuffins that will save the world. And most strangely, the plot occasionally veers into vengeful-ex-girlfriend/phsycho-thriller territory as Ahmanet, for reasons unexplained, seeks to use Morton as a replacement vessel to bring Set into the world of the living. Because none of these elements gel together, the movie swings wildly between tones and style, which results in bizarre scenes, such as Tom Cruise debating with an imaginary zombie while stood in the ladies room of a traditional English pub.
It’s Cruise who looks most uncomfortable with this arrangement. We all know he’s well-equipped to play the charming-but-reckless action hero, but his status as the a-typical all-American hero makes it near impossible to accept him as a morally conflicted scoundrel who may well sell out the human race to ensure his own survival. Boutella is a much better fit as Ahmanet. A subtle mix of seductive and deadly, Boutella fully embodies the role of a manipulative, power-hungry empress who’ll stop at nothing to regain power. The only disappointment is that the narrative so often reduces Boutella to a clingy ex-girlfriend as she spend much of her screen time chasing after Cruise in the hope he will help Ahmanet achieve her destiny. Wallis, meanwhile, is lumbered with a rote damsel in distress role, required only to give Morton a reason to reveal his good side.
It’s not entirely joyless, of course. Director Alex Kurtzman delivers several well-mounted set-pieces – including an underwater escape through the catacombs beneath London that’s breathlessly tense – and there’s a cheeky vein of deadpan humour which prevents proceedings from feeling too po-faced. Yet any momentum that’s been built up comes grinding to a halt when Crowe’s Jekyll, here cast as the untrustworthy head of a secret organisation designed to link the film series together, rocks up to spout endless exposition about Egyptians, the Crusades and some guff about magical McGuffins buried beneath the Jubilee Line. This is the fatal flaw in trying to rush through building a cinematic universe, rather than allowing it to evolve naturally. The entire plot has to stop to allow Crowe to put the action into context. It’s attention-sapping stuff and no amount of Crowe’s cockney-geezer interpretation of Hyde tossing Cruise around like a soggy chew toy can get it back on track.
None of this is necessarily ruinous for the Dark Universe – after all, the DCEU recently overcame a faltering start to deliver one of the most popular blockbusters of the year. And with The Bride of Frankenstein, a Van Helsing reboot and a Johnny Depp-starring Invisible Man movie all looming on the horizon, Universal will have plenty of opportunities to tweak their formula. If they can just figure out what they want this universe to be, there’s plenty of fun to be had in this frightening new world of gods and monsters.
Runtime: 107 mins
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Screenwriters: David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kusshen
Stars: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe, Annabelle Wallis