I don't know if I'm confident that The Mummy would be a good film if it lacked any and all references to the "Dark Universe" that Universal badly wants to kick-start, in which all of the studio's classic monsters (Dracula, the Frankenstein creations, the wolf man, the creature from the Black Lagoon, and yes, the mummy) as well some new additions to the Universal fold (Dr. Henry Jekyll and his murderous alter-ego, Mr. Edward Hyde) come back to life and cross paths with each other. Because as we all know, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man is a beloved genre classic that should be exhumed and emulated, and not a piece of crap that even fans of old horror movies treat with a shudder of resignation.

But it would certainly help to snip out all of that material, or even just re-write it to be self-contained (and Edward Hyde-free). What we'd have at that point could be a perfectly functional movie, with a smattering of pretty solid "B-movie with a budget" performances in most of the important roles. That's still a hell of a lot more than you can say for Universal's last failed attempt at kickstarting a monster movie super-franchise in 2014, with the lifeless Dracula Untold.

The newest Mummy takes its cues from no previous film of that title: not the creepy 1932 film Universal made with Boris Karloff, not the great 1959 film made early in Hammer's rebirth as a Gothic horror outfit (still the greatest of all mummy films), not the 1999 action-adventure that Universal turned to when horror seemed all played out for this particular monster. Though it's the last of these that The Mummy '17 most clearly wants to make us think about: like that film, it's a big summertime action romp that includes a few individually horror-ish scenes, but otherwise feels more eager to retread a popcorn movie of yore. I'm no fan of the '99 Mummy, but I'll credit it with an excellent choice of model in the archetypal model swashbuckler, Raiders of the Lost Ark; the new Mummy sets its sights no higher than being a monster-themed variant of a Marvel Studios movie. Not even one of the really good Marvel movies. It wants to be, like, fucking Ant-Man, or something.

Still and all, it's a mummy movie, and that means it mostly writes itself: Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), a pair of military contractors hired by the U.S. army to scout out enemy locations in Iraq, have instead gone on a treasure hunt with a map stolen from archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). What they find is a big ancient tomb, full of hieroglyphic warnings about the especially evil curse this particular corpse lies under. Obviously, they fall afoul of the curse: Chris is turned into the mummy's Renfield, and Nick is stuck with a much darker fate, to become the mortal vessel for the evil Set, the god of death (the film here cheats: Set is the closest to an "evil" god in ancient Egyptian theology, but the actual god of death was Anubis. Set was, basically, the god of being a violent asshole. Obviously it's not fair to expect every film to approach Egyptian mythology with the care and respect of the modern classic Gods of Egypt, but still...). Cue sandstorms, arms of remote-controlled dessicated corpses, and a mummified sorceress who keeps sucking the life out of hapless bystanders until she has mostly reincarnated as herself, Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), among the other plot points ported over from the '99 film.

As far as all those various ingredients go, The Mummy is a perfectly adequate bit of popcorn trash. The comedy is light and easy, and Johnson's dry delivery as the designated comic relief makes the jokes seem smarter than they are. Cruise is on autopilot, but the role fits comfortably enough into his recent string of "watch the gorgeous movie star get walloped in action scenes" vehicles that it still gets by on the charisma he carries by the bucketful. Boutella is stuck in one of the most incredibly retrograde roles conceivable - exotically mysterious Middle Eastern femme fatale - but she has enough fun with the hammy possibilities of her part to stand as a solid villain anyway. The setpieces are okay; director Alex Kurtzman, responsible for a great many horrible tentpole screenplays over the last decade and a half (he has a story credit here) has a style that's as anonymous as anything could be, leading to action scenes that have no real vitality, but he's pretty good at staging the horror-esque moments with the cloudy Gothic atmosphere of an old '40s Universal B-movie allotted a PG-13 rating. Nobody in their right mind could possibly say that this was better than it had to be, or memorable in any way, but it could probably be a harmless way to pass the time.

That it fails to rise up even to that level isn't just due to Universal's franchise-building intentions, though that's a huge part of it. The worst thing about the film, by far, is the presence of a secret international monster-hunting organisation, led by Dr. Henry Jekyll, played by Russell Crowe. And that's just a terrible bit of casting: when Jekyll inevitably bursts into Hyde, the actor's thick build and deep voice work out just fine, but as Jekyll he's hilariously bad. Trotting out a jovial voice and big forced smile, Crowe makes the good doctor seem like a particularly shitty mall Santa during the off season, and not so much like a genius biologist obsessed with questions of good and evil.

Plenty of the film is bad just on its own: it has the definite stink of a filmmaking-by-committee project even without the franchise-building. Between the screenplay and the scenario, six individuals are created with writing the thing, and it feels appropriately piecemeal, right from the tedious flashback opening sequence, in which Crowe blandly narrates Ahmanet's story, dropped into the plot like a sack of potatoes, all the way to the broken-down climax, with its clutter of ideas and sequel hooks. A film whose pleasures are as slight as this one needs to remain light and clean and streamlined, and even at just 107 minutes - practically a short film by contemporary standards - The Mummy is bloated and messy, lost in its own storytelling, burying its simple pleasures below a pile of executive notes and CGI bullshit.

Reviews in this series
The Mummy (Kurtzman, 2017)