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Sofia Boutella and Tom Cruise star in The Mummy, a film that neither establishes the right note of levity nor a genuine thrill of terror.

Universal Pictures

1.5 out of 4 stars

The Mummy
Written by
David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman
Directed by
Alex Kurtzman
Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis and Russell Crowe

Museums are increasingly reluctant to display human remains, but if you have ever seen mummified corpses, they can actually be rather touching things. Ephemeral yet ancient, their frail bodies seem to inhabit a contradictory place that is both emphatically mortal, yet holds some promise of immortality. There they are, still dead so many thousands of years later, provoking more contemplation than fear.

Yet, most of us are afraid of death, so the movies have insisted that mummies must be frightening and evil things, a ridiculous bunch of stumbling zombies wrapped in ticker-tape. The Mummy, the first offering in what Universal Pictures hopes will be a whole monster-movie franchise dubbed "Dark Universe," does at least give the lead corpse a sexy update and some motivation – Sofia Boutella plays a disinherited and vengeful Egyptian princess who has made a pact with Death – but sadly, she also commands a B-movie army of decaying bodies with an unexplained animus against anything living.

And the living are pretty lifeless themselves. As led by the often wooden Tom Cruise playing the U.S. soldier who inadvertently wakes the dead, and directed by an indecisive Alex Kurtzman, the cast is offered some passable action sequences but struggles with weak dialogue and uneven comedy. Come to think of it, the movie itself is rather like the Hollywood mummies of old: There it walks, lurching from side to side on rigid legs, deadly in its intent but uncertain of the right path, trailing bandages as it goes. Escape from this ineffectual pursuer should be as easy as staying home.

Story continues below advertisement

It's not that Dark Universe is a bad idea. On the contrary, monster movies could make rather sophisticated contemporary reboots; apply the sombre tone and moral ambiguity that is so fashionable in Hollywood action movies these days and you might produce something satisfyingly subtle. After all, the monsters are more interesting symbols of human nature than all those one-note superheroes. Universal promises a Dr. Jekyll (Russell Crowe), that literary personification of dualism; a Frankenstein's Monster (Javier Bardem), that tale of nature versus nurture; and an Invisible Man (Johnny Depp), that story of anomie. It's all potentially potent stuff and hey, making Depp invisible, that'll be a trick worth seeing.

But first, we have to suffer through Cruise and The Mummy. According to the industry press, he has only been cast because he's still a celebrity in Asia. Subtitles clearly soften the painful truth that the guy may have onscreen charisma but has never known how to deliver his lines. Here, playing a soldier in Iraq who does a little sideline in looted antiquities, he's flat in the funny bits and stilted whenever he's called on to make a big speech.

He's not getting any help from Kurtzman. A screenwriter helming his first big-budget effort, the director handles the busy action sequences firmly enough, but he never clearly establishes the right note of levity nor the genuine thrill of terror. Cruise's Nick Morton character has a sidekick played by Jake Johnson, an actor who usually shows a deft hand at slacker comedy, but their scant repartee falls flat and they never establish much rapport before they've uncovered an ancient grave in the desert and released the titular monster.

She is Ahmanet, a crown princess who has been buried alive after killing her father and an inconvenient new baby brother, and her sexy-dead thing is one of the film's more convincing elements. Kohl-eyed and powder-faced, decked out in white ribbons and cuneiform tattoos, Boutella conquers the weird look – like some kind of Bedouin heroin addict who's been involved in a bad traffic accident – and the malevolent persona.

Her human competition for Nick's affections is Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), an archeologist seeking to preserve ancient monuments from war. She is supposed to be all fiery and offended because Nick has stolen a treasure map from her, but here's another character with whom Cruise never establishes much rapport. Jenny goes ga-ga for Nick fairly quickly; all tension evaporates and Wallis's performance fades badly as our heroine is reduced to following her man about, repeating his name and running away from the mouldering corpses that Ahmanet has unleashed.

With the dead in hot pursuit, Nick and Jenny jet off to London on the trail of some ancient dagger that is going to fix everybody's problems – or at least provide a whole sextet of Hollywood screenwriters with something resembling a plot. There, Ahmanet is captured by Dr. Jekyll himself. He's a medical doctor deeply engaged in the study of evil and Crowe, never the academic type, is both badly miscast as a cheerfully pontificating genius and not particularly scary as a bulbous Mr. Hyde. None of this bodes well for his character's own eponymous movie, forthcoming from Dark Universe.

Cruise also ends up in a place that screams sequel, but as he rides off into the desert in search of more mummified adventures, you may rather wish he'd get lost in a sandstorm and never return.

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