At one point in “The Mummy,” Tom Cruise is threatened with doom by a ghoul who warns him, “There are some fates worse than death.”
Starring in a film like this is one of them. If this bloated, aimless feature proves anything, it’s that even with a talented team like Cruise and Russell Crowe above the title, you can’t breathe life into a cinematic corpse.
The film is lightly informed (“inspired” is too strong a word) by a 1930s Boris Karloff movie about an ancient Egyptian cadaver that climbed from his sarcophagus into the modern world, slow-walking in search of his reincarnated lost love and strangling people. This version aims to deliver much more action, size and noise, with dabs of irony and humor.
Lamentably, director Alex Kurtzman has made only one small family comedy and is unqualified to work at this scale. This is an aggressively incompetent movie.
Malformed story gaps are patched with flashbacks and voice-over narration. The visual storytelling is subpar. Most of the jokes crater. The performers’ discomfort is obvious; you can smell their sweat. And you have read high school yearbook messages composed better than this banal script.
Cruise, operating at less than full capacity, plays Nick Morton, a weak Indiana Jones knockoff. Machine gun in hand, he jumps into a free-fire zone in Iraq, doing parkour across collapsing buildings to steal Mideast antiquities.
He discovered his latest batch by seducing archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) and stealing her map to a hidden burial ground. The pair reunite at a man-made underground cave that holds the remains of Egyptian princess Ahmanet.
The scene is lightly dusted with their sarcastic bickering over who had the most memorable time during their night of love. It’s the sort of awkward wiseguy dialogue that reminds us that light comedy, like racy sex talk, has never been Cruise’s strong suit.
Strange sex imagery is a cornerstone of this. Ahmanet, who moves among the living in the lithe form of Sofia Boutella, wears her burial wrappings in a very attractive arrangement. A prologue tells us that in her first life, she was about to drive a reincarnation dagger through the chest of her lover in mid-dalliance before being captured and carried away to be entombed.
On her comeback tour, she casts come-hither looks at Nick through eyes with two irises apiece. She‘s determined to re-create her 5,000-year-old fling, kill him with the same magic scabbard and live undead ever after.
Time is transcended. Things get weird. Large-scale action set pieces you have seen scores of times before return to a screen near you.
Much of this is explained to us by Crowe as Dr. Henry Jekyll. He is a scholarly scientist whose posh English intonations guide monster research mumbo jumbo at a secret organization. Doing his best as the exposition nozzle, Dr. Jekyll deals with blurry plot points when not transforming into Mr. Hyde, a Cockney brawler who takes him over from time to time.
Making the best of timeworn material, Crowe creates a divided antihero much more engaging than the moth-eaten CGI cadavers that are Ahmanet’s evil minions.
Cruise, a generally reliable performer, fares poorly as Nick, a bad-boy character far from his performing comfort zone. Beyond the run-jump-shoot-repeat essentials of the role, he’s on hand to look confused and ask, “What the hell is that?”
I wonder the same about this woeful entry in Universal Studios’ gradually expanding “Dark Universe.” The overall plan is to create a collection of updated horror classics featuring Dracula, the Invisible Man and the like, arranged into a Marvel/DC-style catchall, each ending with a cliffhanger that helps market the next. The idea of making a seriously weird and interesting antiwar satire out of “Kong: Skull Island” worked well, but “The Mummy” doesn’t trigger five seconds of nostalgia.
Did anyone outside the studio marketing team ask for the film? What the hell is that?
★½ out of 4 stars
Rating: PG-13 for violence, action and scary images and for some suggestive content and partial nudity.