Friday, June 9, 2017

The Mummy: Should've stayed buried

The Mummy (2017) • View trailer 
Two stars. Rated PG-13, and generously, for relentless violence, scary images, dramatic intensity, partial nudity and mild sensuality

By Derrick Bang

Tom Cruise is on solid ground when he concentrates on straight action epics, such as the always entertaining Mission: Impossible series.

Nick (Tom Cruise) and Jenny (Annabelle Wallis) can't believe what they're seeing: probably
fresh script pages that make even less sense than what they've endured, thus far, in this
laughable mess of a movie.
But when he attempts to blend adventure with light humor, the results can be dire. He’s a far, far cry from the breezy comedic charisma of — to pull out an appropriate name — Brendan Fraser.

In fairness, Cruise can’t take all the blame for the lamentable mess of The Mummy; there’s plenty to go around. This debut entry in Universal Pictures’ highly touted “Dark Universe” classic monster revival series is a grave disappointment, from Alex Kurtzman’s lackadaisical direction, to a breathtakingly bonkers script credited to no fewer than six (!) people. It would appear that too many cooks spoiled the broth.

This is a kitchen sink mess, with elements borrowed (or stolen) from all over the place, then clumsily stitched together in a manner that only Dr. Frankenstein could love. Cruise swans about, one scene to the next, not even trying for characterization — not that he’s given much — and adding absolutely nothing to these daft proceedings.

Hell, co-star Jake Johnson gives a more engaging performance. And he’s dead most of the time.

This abysmal monster mash clearly was compromised by the need to serve too many masters. I’m surprised the ego-laden Cruise even signed up, because he isn’t the significant element in this ghoul-laden thrill ride; he’s merely window dressing, as the stage is set for future installments involving the Invisible Man, the Wolf Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and the aforementioned Dr. Victor Frankenstein. Establishing all of that pulls focus from the adventure at hand, to its additional detriment.

Mostly, though, this Mummy simply isn’t well conceived. It’s one of those make-it-up-as-we go contrivances, with random, Perils of Pauline-style dangers interrupting microscopic moments of plot. The story also suffers from a malady quite common to modern adventure epics: a villain so strong, so evil, so world-manipulatingly powerful, that there’s simply no way our ordinary, flesh-and-blood heroes could prevail.

Except that the script says they must, and, well, that’s that.

Events begin in Iraq, in the midst of chaotic warfare, with Nick Morton (Cruise) and good buddy Chris Vail (Johnson) having some vague legitimacy with an American military presence led by Col. Greenway (Courtney B. Vance). In point of fact, Nick and Chris are grave robbers ... or, as Chris puts it, “liberators of precious antiques.” The fact that Greenway tolerates their presence doesn’t fly for a second, even as Cruise spouts the explanatory words.

For that matter, making fun of the ongoing Iraqi conflict is an eyebrow-lift, but hey: That’s small potatoes, compared to this film’s many other sins.

A random bomb blast creates a sinkhole that unearths the massive antechamber, cavern and “mercury tomb” intended to trap the sarcophagus of the dread Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella): an Egyptian princess so vile, so evil, that she has been “stricken from history books” for all eternity. We know she’s bad news, thanks to a series of ancient-times flashbacks that Kurtzman repeats over ... and over ... and over.

Along with an irritating, out-of-focus flickering candle effect, which he also employs to excess.

Bad ol’ Ahmanet might have remained trapped, except that the dunder-headed Nick impulsively destroys the complex imprisonment system ... for no apparent reason.

I mean, seriously? That’s more than an eyebrow-lift, even in this silly mess of a movie.

The discovery is taken over by British cultural heritage officer Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis); the sarcophagus is placed into a military transport plane also containing Nick, Chris, Jenny, Greenway and half a dozen expendable soldiers. The trip does not go well, along the way generating the film’s impressively jaw-dropping stunt masterpiece: the best in-flight crash sequence ever (thanks to 64 parabola weightlessness sessions endured by cast and crew, aboard an Airbus A310).

By design, the reviving Ahmanet — still sentient, within her sarcophagus — has brought down the plane in England, adjacent to an archaeological dig that has unearthed the mystic jewel that she needs to power a sacred dagger, with which she will unleash the evil god Set, bringer of chaos and violence, on the modern world. To do so, she also needs a human host for Set, and has set her gaze on Nick: he who “rescued” her.

Frankly, it’s a fate that he well and truly deserves.

Once Ahmanet starts roaming the British countryside, reviving the dead along the way, the film devolves into a standard-issue zombie flick. Nick and Jenny, now continuously on the run, find every imaginable means to smash, bash, disembowel, decapitate, de-limb and otherwise shred these undead pursuers: melees that go on, and on, and on.

It would all be cartoonish nonsense, except that these undead beasties — and Ahmanet herself — actually are pretty damn scary. Makeup artist Lizzie Georgiou and visual effects supervisor Erik Nash did their jobs well, and the result stretches the film’s PG-13 rating. Parents with impressionable young children are thus warned.

At about this point, we’re introduced to Prodigium, a long-established, clandestine government organization tasked with protecting the world from Evil. (Raise your hands, if this sounds like Doctor Who territory, via U.N.I.T. and Torchwood.) Prodigium is run by a certain Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), for whom Jenny actually works, and who hopes to put a lid on Ahmanet — and Set — for all time.

Poor Dr. Jekyll must inject himself with a complex drug cocktail, at regular intervals, in order to prevent the resurgence of a certain Eddie Hyde. It’s typical of this film’s sloppiness, that Jekyll seems to need this dose every few hours; one wonders how he makes it through a single night’s sleep.

Crowe, at least, clearly is having a great time; he’s the only one contributing a performance that’s suitable for this overcooked nonsense. Poor Wallis is a veritable black hole on the screen, reduced to long-winded, archaeo-babble explanations; or fleeing in fright; or repeatedly telling Nick, despite ongoing evidence to the contrary, that he’s a “good person underneath.”

Wallis delivers so many variations of that puerile sentiment — once even in flashback! — that members of Tuesday evening’s preview audience began to snicker derisively, each time. With good cause.

Johnson is more successful, particularly after Chris succumbs to an Ahmanet-controlled spider bite, and becomes Nick’s undead “chiding guide” (a gimmick shamelessly stolen from Griffin Dunne’s decomposing character, in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London). Trouble is, the script becomes vague with respect to Chris’ actual role in these events.

Boutella — well remembered as the lethal Gazelle, in 2014’s Kingsman: The Secret Service — makes Ahmanet appropriately malevolent and creepy. Boutella definitely maintains a sinister presence, and clearly was coached to move, walk, gesture and even turn her head, in a manner intended to maximize her character’s ick factor.

Everything builds to a bewildering climax that Makes. No. Sense. At. All ... even by this film’s impressive refusal to obey its own fitful stabs at plot logic. By the time we hit the gratuitously stupid epilog — complete with sermonizing voice-over narration — everybody was scanning for the exits, desperate to flee.

Every summer movie season delivers a few spectacular flame-outs, but I honestly wasn’t expecting this to be one of them. The Mummy once again demonstrates what happens when spectacle and “high concept” are treated with more respect than story, characterization and plot.

To be more blunt, it’s the script, stupid. Forever and always.

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