Despite some great work by Sofia Boutella and Tom Cruise, there’s very little life in this particular ‘Mummy.’
You have to say this about Universal Pictures: they’re not being half-assed when it comes to their new cinematic world. Much like the film’s superhero brethren, The Mummy opens by throwing its Dark Universe logo out there for the whole world to see, promising from the film’s first moments that there will be plenty more where this came from. Granted, many film critics have questioned whether it was wise for Universal to plan out a handful of movies before the first film was even in the bag, and while The Mummy is not without its moments, it’s a far cry from Iron Man or even Man of Steel as the starting point for a new movie franchise.
This modern retelling of The Mummy focuses on Tom Cruise’s Nick Morton and Jake Johnson’s Chris Vail, a pair of treasure hunters who use their status as military contractors to loot villages before they are occupied by American armed forces. With the help of Annabelle Wallis’s Jenny Halsey — the film’s resident it-belongs-in-a-museum type — the two men accidentally unleash Sofia Boutella’s undead Ahmanet on the world, who promptly kills off Cruise’s character before returning him to life as her champion and the eventual vessel for the Egyptian god of death. To figure out how to defeat her, Morton and Halsey will need the help of Russell Crowe’s Henry Jekyll, the head of a secret government agency that fights evil throughout the world.
Much credit should go to Sofia Boutella, whose Ahmanet is unquestionably the most fleshed-out — pun entirely intended — character in the film. Boutella plays Ahmanet as a woman who knowingly damned herself for a seat at the table; her chance to rule as Queen of Egypt was taken away when her father’s wife gave birth to a son, and her decision to murder her way to the throne — seen through an extended flashback sequence before we’ve even been introduced to Cruise or Wallis’s characters — offers some tragic complexity to an otherwise basic character (she later offhandedly defends herself by saying that “those were different times,” and I find no holes in that particular piece of logic). Put another way, The Mummy joins Cruise’s The Last Samurai where the wrong character ascends to the title role.
This shouldn’t be misconstrued as a knock on Cruise, though, as the actor is doing his damnedest to make The Mummy a movie worth watching. Cruise seems to be relishing his opportunity to play against type; while Cruise may be known for his competent and earnest action characters, Nick Morton is the actor’s rare idiot antihero, and the film’s funniest moments come from his panicked acknowledgment that he’s in over his head. One fight sequence that takes place in a graveyard, for example, finds the perfect balance of Cruise’s analog style and the movie’s digital effects: Cruise punches his way through an army of the undead, only to get his hands and feet stuck in their torsos, recoiling in disgust as their bodies disintegrate around them. Those worrying that the actor’s physical accomplishments would be lost amidst the CGI will be relieved to know that The Mummy still takes great pleasure in watching Cruise beat himself up for our entertainment.
The pivot, sadly, comes when the film introduces Morton to Russell Crowe’s Henry Jekyll. It’s not as if Jekyll is an impossible character to bring to the screen; look no further than James Nesbitt’s character in the 2007 BBC miniseries Jekyll to see how the character can be adapted for contemporary audiences. But not only does Crowe’s performance rank far closer to Hasselhoff than Nesbitt, he also helps move the film into its dreary final half, turning the supernatural comedy of the first half into a dour (and unsubstantiated!) love story between the two leads. How is it that a government agency set up to fight monsters is so devoid of fun? Shouldn’t one of the film’s six screenwriters have watched Hellboy before embarking on a similar story? I’m always of the opinion that Hollywood blockbusters should risk being a little weird, but what’s the point in making a movie about monsters if you’re going to let it play out with all the panache of a ’90s action movie?
There are other problems, too. Courtney B. Vance’s Colonel Greenway, despite being one of the few prominent people of color in the film, is introduced and killed off within a matter of minutes. The film’s entire opening action sequence is also predicated on the idea that Iraqi insurgents have no respect for their own history or culture and are either blowing up or shooting any architecture older than a decade. If the film were better, these failures of representation might have gotten lost in the subsequent conversation — it’s happened before and it will happen again — but they have nowhere to hide given the mediocrity of the film. As it stands, The Mummy is practically begging audiences to take it to task.
The Mummy seems like a film that has been reverse-engineered around its set-pieces, leaving little room for the necessary character work that would sell the relationship between Cruise and Wallis. There was a solid movie somewhere in the midst of all the bland writing; had The Mummy spent more time as a buddy comedy between Cruise and Johnson and less time alternating between a love story and a franchise building block, fans might’ve been willing to sign on for another spin in the studio’s franchise. As it stands, though, The Mummy is a disappointing example of what happens when a movie’s marketing department is steering the ship.