Tom Cruise occupies a particular place in the American blockbuster movie landscape. There's
a quality of compulsion to his onscreen persona: he often seems to be kicking ass not in the name
of good but out of an unhealthy and uncontrollable desire to do so. His stunts and heroism have
the sense of a need to convince. With his offscreen biography of implied repression and the
corruption of Scientology, you feel you watch him save the day so often so that your belief in his
heroism will aid his own.
This is probably unfair (the best driver of men is money, I'll never meet Tom Cruise) and he
has used this overenergetic quality to aid his best performances, both in and out of blockbusters.
(On the other hand the sense that we are minorly subsidizing a multimillion-dollar religious scam is
never a good sinking feeling to add to escapist fare.)
In Universal's remake of The Mummy, Cruise is woefully miscast. His steely determination
plays best against a world of facts, or at least one with structure, not a lazy mishmash of borrowed
ideas and tones. Homages to Lifeforce and American Werewolf in London percolate against
blockbuster setpieces that emphasize the emptiness of those sets and uninspiring tie-ins to
sequels that won't occur. He hangs out with a blonde lead who is younger than him: they go
through the plot. We spend a lot of time with a single actress vamping, our Mummy (Sofia Boutella)
wrapped in CGI. I liked her quadruple pupils and Egyptian dialogue but neither she nor Cruise can
bring the dread the proceedings need: they have more of the air of a theme park ride. Some
moments work well. The Mummy is a disgusting corpse rolling its shrivelled limbs over themselves,
then a sexualized transdimensional hottie, then your typical third act world destroyer with a fetish
for never accomplishing anything. Her ravens, dust clouds and mind control are fun devices, and
slightly different from more popular movie monsters.
Cruise is a passive plaything of the plot, which happens to him in ghostly visions while he
stands dazed. He looks middle-aged, tan, and rested while quick images of the Mummy, the occult
and her murderous past flash before him and us. He is mildly annoyed for being cursed and
damned for having opened her tomb. Movies like the original 1932 The Mummy or smaller horror
films like the recent Lovecraft love letter The Void do so much more to create that needed sense of
dread. (Stephen Sommers’ 1999 version went the other way more completely.) They aren't great
on character or plot either, but they are consistent in tone. To tie itself together the modern version
seems to be going for a dark comedy aspect at times, which I liked, using Cruise's skill at playing a
stressed out, would-be motormouth manipulator. He accidentally sends an extra bullet into a friend
he just shot several times, then apologizes for it to the living. He gets disgusted by punching
through a zombie’s skull. Jake Johnson plays the undead friend who talks to him from beyond the
grave like Lloyd the bartender, but the mix of humor and creepiness doesn't quite work. Johnson
can be funny, but the humor gets watered down here.
Director Alex Kurtzman along with Robert Orci is responsible for writing many of the
Transformers blockbusters. This is more coherent, but with the same assembly line feel. I did like a
funny use of the “They were different times” defense by the Mummy for murdering children, and
what was maybe a Basic Instinct reference in the script (“Nick, she’s in your head”), though I could
just be imagining things.
Cruise's character arc, starting as a callow graverobber and antiquities dealer in modern day
Iraq, is telegraphed loudly in lines of dialogue with the aforementioned blonde love interest
(Annabelle Wallis). She sleeps with and is swindled by him offscreen, yet believes there is good in
him. (A journey from “Do you ever think of anything but yourself?” to “Somewhere in there fighting
to get out is a good man.”) He and Johnson call in a drone strike as comic relief, then the trio
excavate a tomb which like in the original creepily does not grant its occupant safe passage to the
afterlife. Cruise unwisely frees the Mummy and thereafter she chases him to London in pursuit of
some MacGuffin jewels buried with the Knights Templar. The undead knights show influences of
the undead on Games of Thrones and The Walking Dead, but again without the atmosphere those
shows successfully maintain. I liked an image of a skeleton in armor floating away in water. But
there is not much going on here to connect the images.
Russell Crowe shows up as Dr. Jekyll, good as a genteel plot expositor and narrator of
voiceover commercials for this movie and ones to come, which take the place of a traditional
beginning and end. Unfortunately he must turn into Mr. Hyde twice, and because there’s no time
for buildup, it's not very scary. Glimpses of vampire skulls and the Creature from the Black Lagoon’
s arm in a jar hint at where Universal’s Dark Universe would go should it continue. Hopefully with
less budget and fewer cooks in the kitchen any future monster movies by Universal will have a
leaner, hungrier look.
Movie Review: The Mummy (2017)
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Director: Alex Kurtzman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Russel Crowe, Jake Johnson