Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Dead on Arrival: THE MUMMY

Every few years, Universal decides to do something with its roster of classic monster movies – Dracula, Frankenstein, The Wolf Man, and so on – beyond rereleasing the original 30’s and 40’s films on whatever new home video format has arisen since the last time. Lately that means we get 2010’s Wolf Man and 2013’s Dracula Untold, attempts to make new effects pictures out of the old creatures, and maybe even spark a new franchise along the way. Now this had led to The Mummy, the newest attempt to make a whole monster mash adventure series on the solid foundation of hoary old horror tropes. Hey, it worked in 1999 when Brendan Fraser headlined a charming, good old-fashioned Indiana Jonesy period piece action serial about dodging undead Egyptians and their various mythological curses. This time around, in addition to some archeological creepiness the premise requires, director and co-writer Alex Kurtzman (who has had a hand in screenplays for a half-dozen franchises) makes a picture that is a modern Tom Cruise movie, which means it’s at least as interested in hurtling action as it is any simmering supernatural suspense. The movie opens on the star fighting ISIS for control of an ancient Mesopotamian burial site where evil incarnate waits hidden beneath a pool of liquid mercury. Once out, the long-dormant mummified witch (Sofia Boutella, an acrobatic and comitted highlight) will inevitably unleash havoc. That’s enough for a good time, at least until the whole enterprise – growing thinner and duller by the sequence – thoroughly wears out its welcome well before the finish line. And they want to make more of these? Hopefully they’ll be improving as they go.

The main problem with this movie – which has a grinding workmanlike competence to the expected pattern of hectic, noisy collisions of conflict punctuated by droopy exposition spouted by famous faces – is how schematic it is. You can see all too transparently the contract negotiations, marketing decisions, franchise planning, and formulaic plotting on screen. It gives Cruise reasons to take off running from explosions, get into rollover accidents, and smirk at his colleagues before getting likably pummeled. It also has Russell Crowe show up and call him a young man, despite Cruise being two years older (a neat showbiz trick). Crowe is here playing Dr. Jekyll, a clear tip of the hat to a brewing monster meetup in the planned future installments, what with his laboratory with Creature from the Black Lagoon flippers and vampire skulls floating in specimen jars. The film also gives Cruise his usual bantering love interest/professional rival (Annabelle Wallis) and comedic sidekick (Jake Johnson). The script never successfully turns all this into real characters or clear motivations or easily comprehendible MacGuffins, settling for just moderately diverting nonsense and the inexorable pull of blockbuster spectacle sequence-hopping logic. There’s no sense of escalation or danger or invention, just dutifully hitting the marks. 

A constant churn of action works in the exceedingly excellent Mission: Impossible series (probably the most consistent franchise Hollywood currently has running), but those movies use Cruise’s hardworking, hard-charging action demeanor in a series of escalating and cleverly deployed stunts and creatively twisty heist plots. Here it’s just lumpy, car chases and plane crashes and shootouts and howling effects jolting a half-hearted Mummy-stalking feature into the shape of a generic summer movie. In the context of a theoretically spooky monster movie, dripping with zombies and ancient curses and a “who-is-possessed-and-unwittingly-prepared-to-channel-an-evil-Egyptian-god?” plot engine, it starts to feel like two competing ideas smashed unsuccessfully into one. The better idea is the Cruise vehicle, where his charisma and star power can carry along a thin character, and his effortlessly effortful forward momentum can paper over leaps of logic and plot holes big enough a supernatural sandstorm can be seen through them. The lesser idea, alas, is the one that wins out in the end, weakly hitting rote monster beats while hedging its bets, teasing future story and failing to live in the moment long enough to give us a movie worth watching in the here and now. There’s just barely enough for an only mildly disappointing brainless night at the movies, but it’s certainly not enough to crave more.

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