On the Tom Cruise formula gone sour, the folly of extended universes, and the inexplicability of Alex Kurtzman
The Mummy Universal Pictures
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Screenplay: David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman
Starring: Tom Cruise, Sofia Boutella, Annabelle Wallis, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance and Russell Crowe
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 50 minutes / 2.35:1
June 9, 2017
(out of four)
The Mummy is the ultimate Tom Cruise movie. The Mummy is also the antithesis of Tom Cruise's entire career.
It fulfills every promise and fits every description of what we've come to expect from a Tom Cruise summer blockbuster. Except ... too well. This is not really a movie at all but an automated algorithm based on other Tom Cruise movies, like it was created by the same "intuitive" logic of those targeted browser ads that suggest purchasing items you've already ordered. Hi Tom! Based on your recent movies, you might like ... running from a sandstorm!
And run from a sandstorm he does, just like he did in Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol. He also holds his breath in a long underwater suspense scene ... like he did in Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. He does some wicked airplane stunts ... like he did in Ghost Protocol and Top Gun. He dies and then comes back to life ... like he did in Edge of Tomorrow. "You had me at hello," the mummy tearfully whispers to him at one point. And needless to say, he does a lot of running and jumping and rappelling and chasing and, yes you guessed it, more running.
Bits and pieces of his other, better movies have been snatched and borrowed and tied together to create something that resembles a Tom Cruise movie without ever figuring out the "movie" part. If I didn't know any better, I'd assume the Awesom-O 4000 not only conceived this movie but directed it, too. Make no mistake: I like the Tom Cruise summer movie formula. But The Mummy is such an overly programmatic version of it - to say nothing of its strained association to the as-yet-nonexistent extended universe it's trying to kickstart - that it feels almost like a defective version of a better product. The constant subtle differences between this movie and other superficially similar movies are enough to make it unsalvageable.
But beyond all that, and despite those similarities, The Mummy is a strange anomaly for Cruise. One of the things that has set him apart, perhaps more than any other star of his caliber, is the quality of directors he's worked with, and even eagerly sought out. Indulge me if you will as I rattle off his dance card: Stanley Kubrick. PT Anderson. Martin Scorsese. Steven Spielberg. Michael Mann. Francis Ford Coppola. Brian DePalma. Cameron Crowe. Neil Jordan. Oliver Stone. Brad Bird. Ridley Scott. John Woo. [Breathe.] Doug Liman. JJ Abrams. Christopher McQuarrie. Robert Redford. Curtis Hanson. James Mangold. Rob Reiner. Edward Zwick. Ron Howard. Barry Levinson. Bryan Singer. Roger Donaldson. Sydney Pollack. I've just covered nearly his entire career; the ceiling for his chosen directors is all-time great artist, and the floor is solid studio craftsman. Those partnerships have been largely reciprocal - both the riskiness of his choices and the breadth of his acting often go strangely undervalued, with many of those directors getting singular, bold performances out of him - and the results memorable more often than not. (The anti-Tom Cruise in this regard is Will Smith, whose résumé is filled almost entirely with directors that history will not remember; it's no coincidence that he has never starred in a great movie.) (Let the record show that the all-time worst by this standard is Sylvester Stallone, whose director list is a veritable clown car of hacks and hired hands.)
Which is why it's so baffling that he decided to hitch his wagon - and his legitimacy as the face of a new franchise - to Alex Kurtzman, the longtime producer and writer who, prior to this movie, had one directing credit (2012's People Like Us). In fairness, a similar situation paid off when McQuarrie - primarily a writer at the time - was hired to helm Jack Reacher, as he turned out to be one of the most skilled action directors in the business. But Kurtzman's transition is not nearly as smooth. Whatever his skills - and I'm honestly not sure what they are, beyond the salesmanship required to convince anyone to let him direct this movie - he is a thoroughly anonymous presence behind the camera. Whatever control someone of Cruise's A-list stature wields on a movie like this, it simply wasn't met and matched by a great creative artist the way it was with so many of those aforementioned collaborations. Kurtzman is almost certainly the worst director Cruise has ever worked with. There's an action scene in which he is chased underwater by mummies ... and there's just nothing there. No thrust. There's a scene that opens in a morgue, with several bodies wrapped in white, translucent body bags lying on mortuary tables. We make a clear connection to mummification ... except nothing is done with that connection. Kurtzman has no idea how to convey it visually, or how to use the idea, or really how to use images to express anything.
Until just recently, it didn't seem like Cruise needed franchises to begin with, so even signing up for this movie was a bit of a departure. Until just recently, he only had the one franchise - Mission: Impossible, which has been both commercially and artistically successful - and that seemed like plenty for him. But then we got a second Jack Reacher, and then the three-plus-decades-later Top Gun sequel was announced, and then a follow-up to Live Die Repeat Edge of Tomorrow, and in the middle of all that he went and made The Mummy and posed for that ridiculous Entertainment Weekly promo shoot announcing the Dark Universe, which will encompass all the classic Universal movie monsters that the kids are so into these days. The cart is so far in front of the horse right now it's practically in a different zip code. If those pre-announced monster movies (ten of them, including this one) all see the light of day, it'll be the upset of the century. Not to mention, Universal already tried (and failed) to start this three years ago with the terrible Dracula Untold. So they're giving themselves a mulligan and trying again. When everyone collectively ignores The Mummy, we'll see if they hit the reset button again. Anything that keeps Bill Condon away from Bride of Frankenstein can only be a good thing. On a related note, can somebody ask Sony how those Sinister Six plans are going?
Universe-wise, The Mummy introduces us to a) the Mummy herself - Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), unearthed in present-day after her quest for power in 12th-Century Egypt was thwarted and she was entombed alive; b) Cruise's Nick Morton, a military-affiliated soldier of fortune who accidentally stumbles upon the tomb and unleashes Ahmanet's power (with his own soul as collateral damage); and c) Dr. Jekyll and his alter ego Mr. Hyde (Russell Crowe), who I guess is sort of meant as the Nick Fury of these movies. The character is a perfect example of the hacky creative direction this film goes, as Kurtzman identifies Jekyll's transformations into Hyde with awful-looking CGI enhancements to Crowe's face - a jaundiced pallor and glowing eyes - rather than just relying on the great actor inhabiting the role to handle those changes exclusively in his manner of performance, which would be sooooooooo much more interesting. But I digress.
The film is sort of intended to be Cruise's Indiana Jones (although Nick has somewhat less noble ambitions than Indy), but the adventure all seems borrowed and boring, and the attempts at generating a sly comedic spirit fall entirely flat. The awkward romantic pairing between Nick and his pseudo-rival/occasional sex buddy/brilliant archaeologist Jennifer Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) involves no sexual tension whatsoever, to say nothing of the tone-deaf dialogue; and Jake Johnson as Cruise's comic-relief sidekick seems woefully out of place. Everything kinda-sorta fits the template on paper, but in execution it's a disaster. The whole thing feels like it was made with a mathematical formula - as if someone looked at the summer blockbusters of the last decade or so and tried to reverse-engineer one. The Mummy is data masquerading as art.