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Cruise barely holds messy 'Mummy' together

“THE MUMMY” — 2½ stars — Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Russell Crowe, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance; PG-13 (violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity); in general release

“The Mummy” is kind of a mess.

It’s sobering to think of what director Alex Kurtzman’s effort would look like without Tom Cruise in the driver’s seat. Cruise plays Nick Morton, an Army sergeant in Iraq who is more interested in pawning rare antiquities than contributing to the war effort. When he and his sidekick Chris (Jake Johnson) stumble onto a vast underground tomb, they catch the attention of Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), an archeologist fresh off a brief fling with Nick.

Jenny is part of a group — led by a studious Brit named Henry (Russell Crowe) with a secret of his own — that has been tracking an overlooked chapter of Egyptian history. Apparently, 5,000 years ago a princess named Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) made a deal with the Egyptian god of death to make her pharaoh. But her father’s servants mummified her alive and stuck her in a cursed tomb in Mesopotamia — now Iraq — before she could complete her plan.

By disturbing the tomb, Nick and company release Ahmanet’s undead soul, and she sets about finishing her plan, which requires a male “chosen one.” For his role in the disturbance, Nick is appointed the new chosen one, and Ahmanet begins luring him with telepathic visions. His inherent selfishness was obstacle enough, but now he must fight the demon in his head in order to set things right.

This simple Cruise-versus-the-Mummy plot quickly gets overloaded with a lot of confusing elements that individually show potential but never build into a coherent narrative. Half the time Cruise plays against type as a stumblebum with questionable ethics who feels like a wanna-be Indiana Jones. But as soon as the action ramps up, Nick morphs into Cruise’s traditional superhuman action hero who operates one step ahead of everyone around him.

Stumblebum Nick is matched with Chris, who engages with him in just enough witty banter to feel forced, and is much more enjoyable once — mild spoiler alert — he dies and subsequently returns as a zombie only Nick can see.

There are actually lots of zombies in “The Mummy." Ahmanet resurrects all sorts of freshly and anciently dead minions — in one memorable sequence, a pack of them pursue Cruise through a flooded tomb in London. Boutella isn’t given the most dynamic role as the perpetually menacing Ahmanet, but she emotes well, and must be getting used to spending all her time in heavy makeup between this job and her role as the alien Jaylah in last year’s “Star Trek Beyond.”

Nick’s demonic mind-meld with Ahmanet is one of “The Mummy’s” more compelling elements, and it easily overshadows the underdeveloped chemistry the protagonist is supposed to have with Jenny. And Crowe is compelling as Henry, even if his character suggests a completely unexpected tangent for the film and, presumably, its franchise potential.

To its credit, “The Mummy” benefits from some exciting set pieces, including the aforementioned flooded tomb and a fantastic plane crash sequence. It’s definitely watchable, and Cruise gives the effort just enough of an anchor to hold the production together. But once the dust of the film’s beautiful desert vistas begins to settle, audiences will realize that “The Mummy” is at best a muddled echo of the kinds of things that more seasoned franchises do much better.

“The Mummy” is rated PG-13 for violence, action and scary images, and for some suggestive content and partial nudity; running time: 110 minutes.