Thursday, June 8, 2017

Monster Cinematic Universe: Despite a couple thrills, "The Mummy" just a generic, creatively messy product


The Mummy (2017)
120 min., rated PG-13.

Beyond bearing the name and the premise of an Egyptian corpse (now a female) being resurrected, 2017’s “The Mummy” has nothing to do with the 1932 classic with Boris Karloff or the likably fun 1999 comedy-horror-adventure yarn and its sequels. While that first Brendan Fraser-Rachel Weisz starrer was a summery popcorn movie and matinee-serial throwback that modeled its half-ghoulish, half-cheeky tone after the “Indiana Jones” films, this rebranding is dumbed-down, made-by-committee corporate filmmaking through and through. It never needed to make the illusion that it had bigger, deeper fish to fry than to give audiences two hours of fun with a mummified villainess and Tom Cruise doing a lot of meme-ready, open-handed running, but it’s not even successful enough at that. “The Mummy” works as a competent, disposably diverting snack here and there on the most basic level, but as the inaugural launchpad of Universal Pictures’ movie-monster Dark Universe, it’s a pretty blah product overly concerned with franchise-building and layers of none-too-interesting exposition that goes around in circles.

Rogue in Iraq, decorated soldier and looter Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and his partner in crime, Chris (Jake Johnson), hope to discover antiquities that they can sell on the black market. By accident, they unearth an ancient Egyptian tomb under the sand, leading them to a sarcophagus that holds 5,000-year-old princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who was condemned to eternal darkness after killing her family and selling her soul to the god known as Set for immortality. Nick’s one-time lover, archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), comes in on the scene and wants to study their find, but Ahmanet has other plans once she is awakened and imprints Nick as her “chosen one.” After the mummy’s sarcophagus is brought on board the military’s plane with Nick, Chris and Jenny, her curse is unleashed. The plane goes down and crashes just outside of London. Possessed by Ahmanet, Nick wakes up without a scratch but with a tag on his toe in the morgue. As mummified evil incarnate sucks the life out of anyone she can to build an army of minions, Nick must locate a dagger from a European tomb to bury Ahmanet forever.

Because all the “cool kids” are doing it—Marvel, DC, and Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse—“The Mummy” has to be a piece of Universal's planned shared universe. Did the studio already forget about the mediocre non-starter that was 2014’s “Dracula Untold”? If the film had been allowed to just stick to the thrills and delivered on its own terms, it might not have felt like such a drag. Credited to an army of screenwriters (David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman) and three others (Jon Spaihts, Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet) credited for story, the resulting hodgepodge makes one wonder what ideas were actually preserved from the page and what eventually just became a studio exec’s checklist instead of one filmmaker's vision. Time is padded with needlessly recycled scenes, like Ahmanet’s backstory, and so many go-nowhere hallucinations with Nick transporting with Ahmanet to the desert. And, did we really need help from a voice-over narration, stating that a character is redeemed when he finds redemption? With only one previous feature under his directing belt—it being 2012’s character-driven drama “People Like Us”—director Alex Kurtzman struggles to blend an agreeable mongrel of tones, throwing together clangy, misplaced one-liners, predictably timed jump scares, and Tom Cruise vehicle derring-do. It’s hard to gauge the misjudged tone when the mummy hops on top of Nick and rubs his torso down, only to put Nick into a giggling frenzy as if she’s tickling him.

Still not looking a day over 35, A-list movie star Tom Cruise is never about to phone in a project, not even here. He might be miscast, and yet, Cruise reliably breathes some humor into this quintessential Tom Cruise character — a cocksure, devil-may-care adventurer who can make even a seemingly smart woman (and a dead one) fall for him. He and the lovely Annabelle Wallis (2014’s “Annabelle”) as damsel-in-distress Jenny often seem to be doing their own running and stunts, but they can only manage tepid chemistry out of their obligatory, awkwardly inserted romance. When the viewer first meets Jenny, she disparages Nick for being a thief and only lasting 15 seconds in the sack by knowing from personal experience. Then, when the script requires her to, she has a heart-to-heart with Nick and suddenly sees a good man in him because he gave her a parachute during the plane crash. Sofia Boutella (2016's "Star Trek Beyond") has presence and brings everything she has to the title character as Ahmanet, but she has such little to do and she’s oddly sexualized even as a tatted, double-irised “chick in the box.” Jake Johnson is the quip-ready sidekick as Chris, Nick’s buddy who’s always dragged in for adventure against his will, and then later, at the cost of spoilers, gets the undead Griffin Dunne role in 1981’s “An American Werewolf in London.” When he’s not saddled with expository voice-over, Russell Crowe gets the rare opportunity to get his hambone on in the showy role of Dr. Henry Jekyll, the head of an organization who has other plans for the mummy.

“The Mummy” gets its most skillful and sufficiently palm-sweating action set-piece out of the way early; shot in a zero-gravity “vomit comet,” the sequence is set inside a pressurized airplane once Ahmanet unleashes hell upon Nick, Jenny, and others in the air, followed by a spectacular crash. Later on, there’s also a thrillingly staged ambulance escape with severed zombie-cop limbs thrown into the mix. Back to back, these two sequences would make a cool-looking effects reel, but the rest of the film is never as fun as director Alex Kurtzman wants it to be. How can a film squander the use of underwater mummies? Rendered nothing-special outside of its two spectacle-centric highlights, this generic, creatively messy summer tentpole has everything money can buy but not much else. Bringing together classic movie monsters after several false starts might have sounded promising on paper, but if “The Mummy” is what one has to base the future on, it does very little to warrant one wanting to see an entire franchise built around it. Even though this is just the beginning for the Dark Universe, it already feels like the end.

Grade: C - 

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