At various points in “The Mummy,” the evil undead Egyptian hottie who serves as the film’s villain grabs an unlucky passerby and sucks out his soul with a kiss, leaving behind a dessicated but very angry undead guy. Are these creatures mummies too? Zombies? It’s never clear. For the purposes of this review, I’m calling them Zummies.
“The Mummy” isn’t a Zummy but neither does it come fully to life. The film gallops along, mixing heavily digitalized action setpieces with bits of humor, and it allows star Tom Cruise to play one of his more raffish world-saving heroes. But because the movie’s carrying a heavy load of corporate expectations, it gets pulled in different directions by competing agendas before eventually collapsing into incoherence.
It’ll make for a profitable new ride on the Universal Studio theme park lot, but as a movie “The Mummy” is forgettable. By contrast, I still can’t get the image of Boris Karloff creaking to life in the 1932 original out of my head decades after I saw it.
There’s a decent story here, but “The Mummy” has other things to attend to. Chief among them is to establish Universal as a rival to Disney and Warner Brothers in the blockbuster franchise sweepstakes. The studio has been sitting on a handful of classic-monster properties — Dracula, the Wolfman, the Frankenstein monster, etc. — that it has now decided to revivify with a new series of films, of which “The Mummy” is the first.
This means that when you glimpse a vampire skull and the Creature of the Black Lagoon’s webbed hand in a passing shot, they’re not just there for decoration. There’s an overarching series name, too — the “Dark Universe,” oooooo — which comes with its own little logo. The self-conscious mythmaking is not a little annoying.
“The Mummy” starts off reasonably well, with the discoveries of an ancient Crusader’s tomb under London and an ancient Egyptian tomb in Iraq. Cruise plays Nick Morton, an antiquities thief, and Jake Johnson (“The New Girl”) plays his comic relief; the latter is a rehash of Griffin Dunne’s part in “An American Werewolf in London.” Annabelle Wallis is on hand as the beautiful but humorless archeologist who will inevitably warm up to the hero before the film is over.
Between the three of them, they unleash on an unready world the imprisoned and not-dead-yet pharaoh’s daughter Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who 5,000 years ago was about to incarnate Set, the Egyptian god of Death, into her lover when she was mummified alive. Upon reawakening, she spots Nick and, in the way ducklings imprint on labrador retrievers, chooses him as her new consort.
“The Mummy” is directed by Alex Kurtzman, who has produced blockbusters but never directed one before. It plays, in fact, like a movie directed by a producer, someone checking items off a to-do list rather than telling a story in a consistent tone. The early scenes alternate high-octane special-FX 3-D action — there’s a lulu of a setpiece on a crashing cargo plane — with surprisingly jaunty dialogue, and Cruise does seem to be having fun for once.
The film honors the horror DNA of the original “Mummy,” too; unlike the superhero movies of other studios, this one is defiantly creepy and at times downright scary. (PG-13 rating or not, it isn’t a movie for little kids.) At times, you feel a B-movie pulse beating away under the material. That’s a good thing.
When the action moves back to London, though, “The Mummy” turns less nimble and much more silly. The sole pleasure becomes Russell Crowe, juicily hamboning his way through the role of Dr. Henry Jekyll, who apparently is being set up as the highly conflicted Professor Xavier of this new monster-movie cycle. Otherwise, the climactic scenes are noisy and hectic without being particularly exciting, even if they do offer up the novel underwater sight of swimming mummy-zombies — Swummies!
To those audiences who take the trouble to subject them to the light of day, aspects of the new movie will probably seem jarring. The Betty and Veronica calculus of the female roles — sexed-up brunette vs. true-blue blonde — feels depressingly retro, and there’s the general unexamined queasiness of a naked Middle Eastern babe cutting a swath of destruction through London while an All-American hero and his neurasthenic British girlfriend try to stop her. You don’t have to have read the recent headlines to sense a callowness at play here.
But that’s only there if you want to think about it, and the makers of “The Mummy” would greatly prefer you leave your brain at home. Do bring your wallet, though.
Directed by Alex Kurtzman. Written by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman, Jon Spaihts, Kurtzman, and Jenny Lumet. Starring Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe, Jake Johnson. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs; Jordans IMAX, Natick and Reading. 110 minutes. PG-13 (violence, action, and scary images, some suggestive content and partial nudity).