The Mummy movie review: Reboot of a great horror franchise is half-hearted and short on ideas
In search, like everyone else, of well-known stories and characters that will minimise the huge financial risk involved in making a Hollywood movie, Universal is returning to its roots. Once upon a time the studio virtually owned the horror genre, and through the 1930s and early 40s pumped out such classics as Dracula (the Bela Lugosi one), James Whale's Frankenstein films, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and of course Karl Freund's ground-breaking 1932 version of The Mummy.
In that film, Boris Karloff dragged his bad leg around Cairo making a nuisance of himself as he - the undead ancient Egyptian Imhotep - scoured the back streets for his long lost love. The public loved it: there were at least four sequels, and the concept has been returned to many times since, by Hammer Studios and Universal itself. As recently as the late 1990s in fact, when a jokey and light-hearted series of Mummy films was launched - starring Brendan Fraser as an Indiana Jones-type adventurer beset by undead pharaohs and so forth.
It might seem awfully soon to be making another Mummy movie, but Universal is hoping to launch a new horror franchise, and this is the first of a 'Dark Universe' series that will trot out all the old favourites - Frankenstein, Count Dracula and Dr Jekyll, who makes an appearance in this one.
Tom Cruise, whose presence in an action movie still makes producers purr, is Nick Morton, a reprehensible treasure hunter who's serving with the US Army in Iraq but spends most of his time searching for ancient artefacts.
Nick and his accomplice Chris (Jake Johnson) are in a desert town occupied by surprisingly gun-shy jihadis when they chance on an elaborate, ancient tomb. It appears to be Egyptian, a deeply puzzling find in the middle of what would have been Mesopotamia, but Nick couldn't care less. There are golden trinkets everywhere, and he also chooses to ignore the efforts that have been made to hide and hold in place a sternly-decorated coffin.
With the help of an archaeologist called Jenny (Annabelle Wallis), and his dubious commander (Courtney B Vance), the coffin is raised from the hole and put on a military plane bound for London. But as they near their destination, strange things begin to happen. Chris, who was bitten by a bug in the tomb, is transformed into a murderous zombie and appears to be taking instructions from someone. A murder of crows (I've always wanted to use that phrase in a sentence) flies into the engines and cockpit, sending the plane plummeting towards Blighty.
Nick saves Jenny by giving her the last parachute (very sporting of him), but when the plane crashes in a ball of flames, Nick somehow emerges unscathed. He's been earmarked as 'the chosen one' by Amunet (Sofia Boutella) the undead mummy in the coffin, who will slowly reassemble herself by sucking the life essence out of passing Britons, and intends to make Nick her eternal partner in tyrannical rule. Which doesn't sound too bad, from his point of view, until he finds out that being the chosen one involves getting stabbed with an ancient dagger.
The intentions of this film are banal, and clear. Cruise will be the jokey hero, who double-takes when beset by moaning zombies, undercuts the pomposity of grandiose villains and charms the ladies, all while saving the world.
It's all a bit half-hearted, though, the script lacks vigour, and overall the enterprise is hopelessly derivative.
You'd expect it to echo other Mummy movies, but the Brendan Fraser series is so recent that the effect is unsettling, and the film's debt to the Indiana Jones films in general and The Last Crusade in particular can only be described as shameful. Cruise is fine, as ever, but seems to be phoning in the charm, and Russell Crowe's Henry Jekyll is bluff, but unconvincing.
The Mummy does have one thing going for it. Algerian actress Sofia Boutella has a background in dance, and is compellingly graceful as the remorseless Amunet, who may be morally questionable but is commendably goal-driven. I must admit I ended up rooting for her.
The Mummy (15A, 110mins) ★★
Also this week: Movie reviews: My Cousin Rachel, The Shack, Berlin Syndrome
Films coming soon...
Churchill (Brian Cox, Miranda Richardson, John Slattery, James Purefoy); Cardboard Gangsters (John Connors, Kierston Wareing); Gifted (Chris Evans, Lindsay Duncan, Octavia Spencer); Whitney: Can I Be Me (Whitney Houston, Bobby Brown).