MOVIE BUFF-ET: Cruise’s “The Mummy’ a stumbling start to Universal’s Dark Universe of movies


Since Boris Karloff first shambled out of his sarcophagus in Universal Pictures’ 1932 original, moviegoers have had to fend off a new interpretations of “The Mummy” every 20 years or so.

Call it the mummy’s curse, if you will.

The latest mummy relapse to plague theaters is a big-budget flick that attempts to blend action, horror and comedy to ignite Universals’ connected slate of Dark Universe films at the box office.

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No doubt inspired by Marvel Entertainment’s success with its connected series of super-hero movies, Universal means business with this venture — big business.

“The Mummy” stars A-listers Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe, and fellow big guns Johnny Deep and Javier Bardem have signed on to star in remakes of “The Invisible Man” and “The Bride of Frankenstein” respectively

Rumors have Universal courting the likes of Angelina Jolie to star as Bardem’s bride and Dwayne “The Rock “ Johnson to star in another “The Wolfman” remake. Michael Fassbender’s name has also been bandied about in reports with fans guessing he might play Dr. Frankenstein or possibly Dracula.

That’s a serious amount of star power for any studio to tap into.

The move by Universal certainly isn’t unprecedented. Every studio is looking to follow Marvel’s footsteps. However, Universal, in fact, created the first connected movie universe way back in 1943 when it opted to throw the Frankenstein’s monster into the mix while developing a sequel to the 1941 hit “The Wolfman.”

Pitting Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolfman against Bela Lugosi’s version of Frankenstein’s patchwork creation proved to be a box-office smash, and it spawned three sequels “The House of Frankenstein” in 1944, “The House of Dracula” in 1945, and “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein” in 1948.

Chaney’s Larry Talbot/Wolfman was the pivotal character in those four films that revolved around him finding a cure for his hairy, moonlit urges.

The best of that batch of B movies was the final spoof, starring Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, one of the most popular comedy teams from the 1940s through the 1950s. Many film historians consider it to be the best film by the duo and one of the best of the Universal monster flicks. The movie’s influence is felt not only in scores of films since but also beloved TV series like “Scooby Doo, Where Are You?” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Despite how well the Abbott and Costello monster mash worked, when Universal played its monsters for laughs, it was the death knell for the series. “The Creature from the Black Lagoon” was a hit for Universal in 1954, neither it nor its two sequels has connective tissue to the monster rallies of the 1940s.

Though scads of big- and small-budget movies featuring mummies, werewolves, vampires, and reanimated corpses of all sorts have entertained and disgusted fans during the intervening decades, the revival of the Universal Monsters as a feature-film brand piqued the interest of monster fans who cut their canines on the classics as kids. Some were enthusiastic, while others were cynical.

The cynical were on target with the Dark Universe’s first outing

It’s too soon to declare Universal’s Dark Universe D.O.A., but “The Mummy” isn’t a good movie, and the script by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, and Dylan Kussman is the primary culprit.

The story by director Alex Kurtzman, Jon Spaihts, and Jenny Lumet is convoluted like most high concepts, but genre fans can deal with that if the characters work well together. Unfortunately, that’s just not the case with “The Mummy.”

The dialogue is bland, and the numerous attempts at humor are as stale as the mummy’s crusty old bandages.

Cruise tries to turn on the charm and charisma that’s made him one of Hollywood’s most bankable and reliable stars for nearly four decades, but he fails to connect as the cursed hero Nick Morton, a soldier of fortune whose treasure seeking leads him into a confrontation with the ancient, evil Princess Ahmanet.

After being revived thanks to Nick’s grave-robbing efforts, the succubus Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) seeks to use him as the catalyst to bring Set, the Egyptian god of death, back to the land of the living. The only catch is that for her plan to work, she must plunge an ancient, ruby-handled knife into Nick’s heart.

My question is why would the god of death want to be brought back to life, anyway? Wouldn’t that cramp his style?

Attempting to halt the return of Set is the clandestine organization the Prodigium, a militarized think-tank headed by Dr. Henry Jekyll (Crowe), who monologues and chews scenery like a champ, all while attempting to keep his fiendish alter ego Mr. Edward Hyde in check.

What does the Prodigium do? It captures, kills, and catalogues monsters in an attempt to keep the world safe from the intrusion of dark forces.

Cruise has little chemistry with primary co-stars Annabelle Wallis as Jenny Halsey, an archeologist and agent of the Prodigium; and Jake Johnson as Sgt. Chris Vail, Nick’s fellow treasure seeker.

Wallis and Cruise struggle to create any heat as plausible paramours. There’s just no friction or connection, other than the two being uncommonly attractive. Their banter is forced, and their delivery comes off as unconnected.

Johnson is meant to be comic relief, but his character, which is a throwback to the Jack Goodman character deftly played by Griffin Dunne in the 1981 John Landis classic “An American Werewolf in London,” fails on all fronts.

While I did like that Johnson’s makeup recalls the stunning work of Universal makeup master Jack Pierce on Karloff in the original, Johnson’s character is neither funny nor scary, and he certainly doesn’t elicit the pathos that Dunne did as Goodman in “An American Werewolf in London.”

To a great degree, “The Mummy” is as much a remake of Landis’ werewolf masterpiece as it is a gender-swapping reboot of Karloff’s mummy flick.

That choice was a serious mistake. Every bit lifted from Landis’ horror classic only reminds the viewer of how great “An American Werewolf in London” remains 36 years later, and points out how lame this movie is.

The film also borrows liberally from Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones movies and the Brendan Fraser’s Mummy films. It also totally swipes a key scene from 1987’s horror comedy “The Monster Squad.”

All of that said, “The Mummy” is a fantastic-looking film. The sets are appropriately creepy, the CGI is on point, and the stunts are amazing, all captured gloriously by the lens of cinematographer Ben Seresin.

Boutella isn’t asked to say much, but she is convincingly evil, frightening, and alluring as Ahmanet. While most of the rest of the film is unmemorable, Boutella’s look and style stands out as a worthy successor Karloff.

As a fan of the old Universal monster movies, I admit I had a good time watching the movie despite its many faults. It’s in my D.N.A.

To its credit, “The Mummy” does have a certain creep factor. The movie looks great, the action scenes are fine, and Boutella looks stunning in her role. However, that’s not enough for me to recommend it across the board.

There’s at least one article on the internet that claims “The Mummy” is Cruise’s worst movie. That, of course, is a highly subjective thought, and Cruise isn’t known for making bad movies. Off hand, the only film of his that I would consider worse is 1992’s “Far and Away.”

Though “The Mummy” is a disappointment, I hope it makes enough money for future Dark Universe movies to be produced. I think there’s still some life to be mined out of those old movie monsters.

(PG-13) 1 hr., 47 min
Grade: C-