Friday, June 16, 2017

Review: The Mummy (2017)

The Mummy (2017)

Rated PG-13 for violence, action and scary images, and for suggestive content and partial nudity

Score: 2 out of 5

There are moments when Universal's reboot of The Mummy, an attempt to revive their classic monster movie franchises as part of a Marvel-style cinematic universe, achieves something resembling a good time. At its best, this movie is the definition of "so bad it's good". From the moment the Universal title card segued into the one for their "Dark Universe", as they're calling their new franchise project, I steeled myself in anticipation for exactly what I paid twenty dollars to see in beautiful IMAX 3D (no, I'm not sorry): a junky, profoundly stupid popcorn blockbuster that was going to make every mistake in the book for how not to set up a cinematic mega-franchise. And I'll admit, the first act is actually dumb fun, the film letting Tom Cruise run wild with his "likable asshole" persona across the deserts of Iraq and the back alleys of England while its genuine stabs at horror are more effective than I would have expected for a summer blockbuster. For the first forty minutes or so, I wondered if I'd been watching the same movie that critics had been slagging off so badly.

Then the film slowed to a crawl for the franchise world-building in the second act, and it all clicked. "Ohhhhhh, that's where this movie went wrong." But you know what? Watching the slow-motion trainwreck unfold was strangely captivating.

Now, there is absolutely no reason to ever watch this hot mess of a film. Its tone skitters all over the place from gothic horror to light action-comedy, the pacing is all over the map, the titular mummy feels like a secondary character in her own movie, the ostensible female lead gets virtually nothing important to do past the first act, and neither the scares nor the action are all that memorable. But there were so many great moments scattered around, like Russell Crowe's performance as a Dr. Jekyll(/Mr. Hyde) who serves as the Nick Fury of the Dark Universe's version of S.H.I.E.L.D., and Sofia Boutella's tragically underused performance as the mummy. As big a steaming pile of crap as this was, it's not one that I regretted watching. And if nothing else, it was an enlightening experience. Universal is now the third studio, after Sony Pictures and Warner Bros., that I've seen whiff on its attempt to chase the Marvel money, and it was for the exact same reason that those guys failed: they sought to make a franchise first and movies second, to the detriment of the movies working as cohesive wholes. I left the theater feeling more convinced than ever that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas' prediction of the film industry "imploding" in the wake of multiple big-time box-office bombs is well on its way to becoming a reality. At any rate, The Mummy serves as an abject lesson in how to do it completely wrong.

At first, the big twist here seems to be the fact that, for the first time, the Mummy is a woman. Princess Ahmanet was an heir to the throne of Egypt who, upon learning that her new baby brother was taking her place, made a pact with Set, the god of life and death, to murder her father and her young brother so that she can rule Egypt forever. Caught in the act, she was mummified alive and buried a thousand miles away from Egypt, in present-day Iraq, so that her evil would not contaminate her homeland. There, she lay buried for thousands of years until Nick Morton, an American soldier and treasure hunter looking to score some loot Three Kings-style, unearths her tomb. To her credit, whenever Ahmanet is on screen, she is a captivating presence. Sofia Boutella gives it her all, playing a wicked seductress trying to tempt Tom Cruise's Nick to the dark side, making him her new vessel to bring Set into the world. Boutella has always been one of the best parts of every film she's been in, and casting her as the mummy was a no-brainer decision that paid off handsomely.

The problem was, for a film that's called The Mummy, there isn't a whole lot of focus placed on, y'know, the mummy. Rather, we spend a large chunk of this film with a mysterious monster-hunter agency called Prodigium (from some Latin phrase about monsters), led by Dr. Henry Jekyll. We get a ton of glimpses of the movie they could've made instead of this, with Prodigium's big monster parts gallery containing references to Dracula and The Creature from the Black Lagoon, among many others -- and of course. Dr. Jekyll himself running the show, his Mr. Eddie Hyde personality allowing Russell Crowe to cut loose as a show-stealing Cockney brawler in the scene where he fails to take his treatment in time. Each of these scenes might have worked on its own, serving as the seed for a damn fun movie in which we find out where Prodigium got all these monster parts, or how Dr. Jekyll first became Mr. Hyde. It showed that Universal has a lot of ideas for the Dark Universe... and unfortunately, they get in the way of the idea that the film ought to have been built around. Teasing a massive franchise is something best left for post-credits scenes and brief, off-hand references -- since I don't want to run back to the Marvel example again, I'll instead point to Kong: Skull Island, a movie much closer to this one in what it aimed to do (i.e. deliver B-grade monster movie thrills on an A-grade budget), as a movie that got me pumped for Legendary Pictures' and Warner Bros.' budding "MonsterVerse" by not packing itself with so much sequel-bait that it interrupted the flow of its own story. Once again, in its rush for franchise money, a studio has put the cart well before the horse.

Even without the franchise problems, however, this film still has some pretty serious story problems running straight to its core that kept me from getting invested in the events on screen. Perhaps most critical is the romance between Tom Cruise's Nick Morton and Annabelle Wallis' Prodigium archaeologist Jenny Halsey, which is supposed to be the main driving motivation for Nick in the third act but which falls flat entirely here. Having been decidedly unimpressed by Wallis' acting in the past, I expected the worst from her, but honestly, no actor could have redeemed the character she played. Wallis was mediocre and bland, but not terrible. The problems here came down almost purely to the writing. Jenny exists purely as an exposition fairy in the first act, telling Nick and his comic-relief partner (who, fortunately, all but vanishes from the film right around the point where his shtick started getting annoying) the backstory of Ahmanet, and then spends the whole of the second act doing nothing but running around alongside Nick while he does everything important. Wallis and Cruise have so little chemistry that I was waiting for her to slap the dumb grin off his face more than anything, such that I felt nothing in the third act when Nick is torn between his "love" Jenny and the temptations of Ahmanet, with her offer to rule alongside him for eternity.

The action and horror scenes do their job in livening the whole affair up, with first-time director Alex Kurtzman proving more skilled at the latter than the former. In the first act especially, where Ahmanet is just regaining her power, we get a surprisingly intense moment where she takes out a pair of cops and turns them into her mummified minions, as well as a moment in an alleyway where she confronts Nick for the first time with a swarm of rats. The introduction to her tomb feels foreboding, getting across the fact that whatever was buried in here was never meant to be released. The undead Crusader knights that Nick and Jenny battle in the third act are also a sight to behold; you can tell that a lot of effects work went into them, and their battle against the main characters reminded me of a bigger-budgeted version of Army of Darkness. The parts in the third act where the film turns into an action-spectacle blockbuster are less impressive, the film over-indulging in mostly empty special effects as Ahmanet causes some awfully hollow-feeling chaos in the center of London. The characters take a backseat to the action, which is scarcely that impressive anyway, only highlighting the lack of actual focus put on the mummy herself. It's shown that Prodigium's headquarters is located next to, and is possibly part of, a museum; how cool would it have been to see Ahmanet escape, explore an Egyptian exhibit in which she sees how the modern world regards her own, and decides to take her supernatural revenge on the heart of the Empire that disrespects her nation so?

The Bottom Line

If you want to see Tom Cruise running for close to two hours, in this case from an ancient Egyptian curse, then you could do worse than check this out once it inevitably enters circulation on SyFy and TNT. Otherwise, this film made me appreciate the cheesy joys of the Brendan Fraser/Stephen Sommers version (to say nothing of the old Boris Karloff classic) that much more.

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