The Mummy review: “a careless and soulless spectacle”

Tom Cruise takes on a megalomaniac mummy – but can his star power save Universal's monster franchise from dying a death?

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★★

Neither exciting nor scary enough and featuring one of the duffest of Tom Cruise performances, this gauze-wrapped, bandage-plastered, murky shambles is the epitome of bland from start to finish. But, hey, you can’t blame Universal Pictures for trying. With no real superheroes in their back catalogue or on the horizon anytime soon, it does seem to make some sort of sense to trawl through their profitable intellectual properties of old and cobble together an Avengers Assemble-type meeting of their Famous Monsters gallery.  

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zh9CTiE1rQ4&showinfo=0?ecver=2

That financially dodgy gamble is the first instalment in the proposed Dark Universe series, which if successful will subsequently involve such other horror heavy-hitters as Frankenstein, Dracula, the Invisible Man and the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Each of those icons gets a visual nod of recognition in a sweep along the shelves of Dr Henry Jekyll’s busy London laboratory. Styled like a creepy Bond villain’s lair, this is the centre of operations for Jekyll (Russell Crowe), clearly the man in charge of a mysterious organisation tasked with monitoring what the world’s classic monsters are up to, while keeping his own inner Mr Hyde in regular check with hi-tech injections.

Here, the good doctor has sent feisty archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) to Iraq to find out why an ancient Egyptian tomb has been discovered deep in the heart of the desert. She’s beaten there by roguish US Army scouts Nick Morton (Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), whose sideline is rescuing antiquities not destroyed by Isis militants and selling them on the black market, and they soon discover it’s not so much a tomb but a prison for the evil Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) who’s made a deal with the death god Set. 

In return for bringing him into the world, she will be given supernatural powers and eternal life. All she needs is a chosen host – step forward the ever-bewildered Nick – and a ritual dagger, the red jewelled half of which was stolen by Crusaders in 1127 and has recently turned up in a grave unearthed by construction workers digging out the Crossrail line in London. With the soul-sucker getting more powerful as her victim body count increases, Ahmanet is eventually captured, chained up and put under Jekyll’s watchful gaze. But the mummy princess must fulfil her pact or else…. Cue yet another CGI free-for-all as the whole lacklustre affair comes to its predictable sequel-baiting conclusion.

Starting off agreeably in Raiders of the Lost Ark rollercoaster action mode before devolving into a grab-bag of steals from other better horror hybrids – An American Werewolf in London’s jokey conversations with the undead being the most obvious, Crusader zombies from 70s schlockfest Tombs of the Blind Dead being the most obscure – director Alex Kurtzman takes an essentially simple reincarnation story and embellishes it into tedious oblivion. Nothing in the action department beats the inventive and exciting plane crash sequence featured heavily in the advance publicity and, considering its 15 certificate, the shivers are pretty low on the ground, too. 

There’s none of the atmospheric dread that still makes the 1932 Boris Karloff vehicle a viable classic. Or even the engaging zippiness of the recent Brendan Fraser trilogy, despite Kurtzman leaning more heavily on those films for his visual references – the bats/rats/spider invasions – than anything too far back in the mists of cinematic time. A major plus point is the linking to contemporary events like the desecration of ancient monuments by militants and the whole Crossrail thread. But the basic premise of Dr Jekyll being the linchpin in this Dark Universe doesn’t feel correct or appropriate. Even the Penny Dreadful TV series didn’t go there.

No doubt about it, Sofia Boutella gives the best performance as the disgruntled princess, mainly because her hieroglyphic-tattooed, dual-iris-eyed antiheroine is focused on being driven by destiny. Everyone else is at the mercy of a messy good v evil script that attempts to be both thrilling and engaging, but fails miserably. Cruise feels especially out of place as the Indiana Jones-like soldier of fortune; he has never seemed less charming or ill at ease with the fundamental traits of his flawed character. Essentially he’s miscast and that means everything else around him suffers in comparison, too. 

Generic to a fault and unsatisfactory in the chilling horror and adrenaline-pumping adventure stakes, The Mummy doesn’t deliver a solid foundation for the nascent Dark Universe concept. There are a few moments when the film comes to life – the London dockside sequence when Ahmanet’s sarcophagus is found and the underwater corpse chase prove suitably nightmarish – but these commendable intervals are buried under routine exposition, silly dialogue – “They were different times” says someone remarking on primordial lore – and Egyptian clichés. Ultimately it’s a careless and soulless spectacle too wrapped up in its Dark Universe origin story to work as a fully-fledged horror fantasy. 

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The Mummy is released in cinemas on Friday 9 June