By Preston Wilder
The first version of The Mummy came out in 1932, the most recent (Brendan Fraser in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor) in 2008. What possible reason could there be for going back to this near-depleted well? “Mesopotamia… currently known as Iraq” says a scene-setting caption, suggesting one possible reason and raising hopes of an updated, politically-savvy movie where the real villain is America’s disastrous post-9/11 Middle East policy. (Fair warning: this is not that movie.) Another reason appears in the casting – because this is no longer Arnold Vosloo (or indeed Boris Karloff) as the mummified Imhotep but Sofia Boutella as the ancient princess Ahmanet, her curse a form of seduction; the Mummy as hot mama.
This is part of Hollywood’s current ‘Let’s do what we usually do, only with a woman’ policy, the flipside of last week’s Wonder Woman – though in fact it’s also the opening salvo in ‘Dark Universe’, Universal’s bid to do a Marvel by rebooting all its old 1930s horror properties (director Alex Kurtzman is also a producer on the upcoming Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man), and it’s also Tom Cruise’s new career move as he struggles to remain relevant. Cruise, it must be said, has been unimpeachable lately, schooling the world on the art of the action blockbuster in Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (which was a hit) and Edge of Tomorrow (which sadly wasn’t) – but he’s also 55 years old and seems to be thinking vaguely about softening his brand, hence the self-consciously feminised Jack Reacher sequel. The Mummy also finds him in playful mode, dodging the attentions of Ahmanet and often playing for laughs amid the mayhem.
Tom is Nick Morton, US soldier and “liberator of antiquities” which he sells on the black market. The ancient princess fancies Nick, having anointed him the Chosen One. She checks his teeth, as you would with a horse, then lifts up his shirt to check his ribcage, presumably to see if it’ll fit her sacrificial stiletto; “I’m sorry, what?” mumbles our hero as she does an incantation in ancient Egyptian. Posh archaeologist Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) also fancies Nick, even if she initially greets him with a punch to the jaw (Cruise comes in for a lot of punishment in this movie) – indeed, buried deep within The Mummy is a rather delightful comedy about a guy pursued by two women, one of them a 4000-year-old demon. “Hell hath no fury…” sighs our hero, and Ahmanet does get jealous at one point (you don’t want to make her jealous) while Jenny speaks scathingly of fickle Nick’s ability to “mimic all the qualities of human intimacy” – a sly, surely-inadvertent dig at Cruise’s reputation for being quite a cold fish, behind the smiley persona.
The Mummy works best at its most insane: in the unexpected comedy bits, some horror slapstick out of Evil Dead 2 – Nick doing battle with Ahmanet’s zombie-like assistant mummies, putting a fist through one zombie’s head and brushing body parts off his lapels – and Russell Crowe as Dr. Jekyll, fusty and rotund as the good doctor then going all Ray Winstone after he transforms into Mr. Hyde. (I didn’t know about ‘Dark Universe’ when I watched the film, and found Jekyll/Hyde’s role charmingly random; it’s a lot less charming now that I realise it’s part of some long-term marketing plan.) The first half has a good enough ratio of insane-to-prosaic to hold the attention. The second half, relocated to London, grows increasingly un-special, though it never jumps the shark to actively annoying.
Highlights include an underwater climax (Rogue Nation had one too), Nick and Jenny frantically looking for parachutes in a stricken plane, plus assorted action scenes in London where they narrowly avoid getting crushed by a Tube train and a No. 25 bus. Breaking down the action isn’t much fun in these big blockbusters, though (especially when it also includes weightless CGI effects like swarms of rats and spiders); it’s all a little samey, lacking personality. The Mummy has the cautious air of the first film in a hoped-for new ‘universe’, never quite committing to wacky comedy – not only does Nick have an earnest conversation with his zombified best friend, they also meet in a ladies’ toilet with irate women knocking on the door – and never quite convincing as a proper vehicle for Tom Cruise, either. The ending is almost embarrassing, pumping up the origin-story angle with Nick – now part-man, part-monster – going out into the world, ready for adventures as he searches for a cure while resisting temptation (“Evil never rests!” warns the voice-over); it’s all so portentous, so transparently promising lots and lots more sequels – yet will audiences really clamour for more of this unspectacular Mummy? As our hero politely informs the horny and demonic ancient princess: “I’m sorry. We’re just never going to happen”.
DIRECTED BY Alex Kurtzman
STARRING Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Russell Crowe
US 2017 110 mins