When you announce your new “smash hit” film franchise, maybe stay humble for a bit… until you actually succeed.
Somewhere in modern-day Iraq, American soldier Nick (Tom Cruise) lures his recon buddy Chris (Jake Johnson) out to a remote village in pursuit of treasure via a stolen map. When the location ends up being overrun with insurgents, a drone airstrike saves their bacon but also reveals the entrance to a tomb… with ancient Egyptian motifs. The US Army arrives shortly thereafter with an assumed archaeologist, Jenny (Annabelle Wallis), who demands to explore the hidden catacombs. What they find there sets in motion a series of events that will change the world or utterly destroy it… but not if the Prodigium and its mysterious benefactor (Russell Crowe) have anything to do with.
Back in 1999, Stephen Sommers wrote and directed a remake of the 1932 Universal film The Mummy, repurposing the Boris Karloff horror film into an Indiana Jones-inspired adventure with horror elements. The success of that movie and its sequels prompted Universal to dust off their remaining old monsters and load them into a similar framework; the result of that debacle was the ill-fitting and ill-fated Van Helsing — which we’ve long since forgiven Hugh Jackman for. Undeterred, Universal launched Dracula Untold, again reworking the horror into adventure and making a hero of the main villain, but the results were tepid at best with audiences although an interesting period piece and retelling. Now in 2017, Universal reboots again with their announced Dark Universe franchise and Tom Cruise headlining an all-newish Mummy film, but can a hefty price tag and star-power jump-start a feature franchise like Marvel did with Iron Man or will they be left struggling in a sandstorm the way DC/Warner Bros. have with their Justice League prequels?
The good news: Wonder Woman may have fixed what was missing in the DCEU, but all of their films have managed to make money. The bad news: Universal just took one hell of a gamble with The Mummy and its fifty-something star Mr. Cruise, but the results feel like too many cooks in the soup; no one person seems to have a vision of what the end result should be. It’s better than Van Helsing — sort of — perhaps trying to repeat the formula than made the J.J. Abrams Mission Impossible sequel films work for Tom Cruise, but it falls very flat here. Maybe it’s the modern setting… or the fact that Cruise’s character is instantly unlikable. While the 1999 reboot of The Mummy made even the worst of our doomed treasure hunters likeable or at least entertaining, 2017 takes itself too seriously when we could really use a laugh and acts silly when things should be serious. It isn’t all bad, though: Tom Cruise gets beaten up and slapped around a lot… if you’re into that sort of thing.
These are possible signs that director Alex Kurtzman is better at producing (“Alias,” “Fringe,” the CBS “Hawaii 5-0” reboot) than helming a film, but it really feels like script by committee; we need these things to happen… just fit them in somewhere. Borrowing from The Dark Crystal, the “Sleepy Hollow” television series, An American Werewolf in London, and every sidekick played by Justin Bartha, The Mummy is full of half-baked or stolen ideas that are never fleshed out and cool setups for money shots that never happen. The so-called Prodigium appears as the underfunded poor cousin of Hellboy’s Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense — complete with a self-motivated monster in charge of hunting monsters — yet so strapped for office space that any visitors or prisoners can clearly see everything their secret organization is up to (which of course they do).
There is some good to be had. Fifty-something Tom Cruise can physically do things twenty-somethings only dream about, but it’s possible his love of aircraft stunts has finally hit terminal velocity. Russell Crowe seeds future installments with his character, both familiar and well-realized, but his too-brief arc is predictable yet still fun. Sofia Boutella revels in her title role while giving Cruise plenty of backhand; another clever point is (minor spoiler) cursing Cruise’s character Nick to survive anything but unable to dish out what he can take. To his credit, Tom makes getting beat down look believably good.
It’s too bad about all of the detail issues and limp narrated ending. Take everything about “the blonde archaeologist,” for example. Rival? Liar? Jenny’s more of a lust interest than a love interest; why would Nick even care about her? Motivations hinging on this point ask too much suspension of disbelief instead of another obvious conquest and notch-mark. Are the heroes stopping bad things or making them worse? Is it really so bad if they don’t? And let’s not forget about Man of Steel-levels of ignored collateral damage: every piece of glass shattering in a major metropolitan city from eyeglasses to skyscraper windows; do you think there might be a few injuries or casualties?
In the end, the 2017 version mostly makes one yearn for the 1999 reboot: a CGI-enhanced cliffhanger-inspired period adventure piece featuring a lovable cast of characters that understood where and how to be humorous while still being dangerous. If this film launch tanks as badly with audiences as it has with critics, it may not be too late for Universal to reboot their Dark Universe once again by going back to embrace Dracula Untold — fingers crossed!
The Mummy 2017 is rated PG-13 for violence, action and scary images, some suggestive content, partial nudity, and slapping around Tom Cruise.
2 Skull Recommendation Out of Four