A pinch of salt is usually needed when reports of a given blockbuster’s quality as great or disastrous can be seen singing from the same song sheet, as more often than not, they’re somewhere in between. A week ago, Wonder Woman was being hailed as some kind of miracle (or wonder), when really, it’s just another decent-but-formulaic superhero movie. This week, there have been post-mortems up the wazoo over The Mummy’s less-than-remarkable opening gross (which have a predictably US-centric flavour; it’s still the biggest global figure for a Tom Cruise movie). Is The Mummy as terrible as has been made out? No, of course not. It isn’t particularly good, but that doesn’t make it significantly worse than any dozen or so mediocre blockbusters you’d care to pick that have been lavished with far less opprobrium.
The thinking behind the savaging is understandable, though. There’s so much hubris on display here, it’s ridiculous. From Universal assuming they can fashion a Dark Universe just like that (despite consistent past form of belly-ups with the likes of Van Helsing, The Wolfman and Dracula Untold), to displaying the rank stupidity of offering an enormously expensive movie to an all-but-untested screenwriter (such daftness is evidently infectious, as Fox have just thrown the latest X-Men to Simon Kinberg. But Fox, at least, can be relied upon for dumb decisions. It did look, for a while, as if Universal was making mostly smart ones).
Somehow, though, the backlash seems to have developed in a Cruise-centric fashion (as noted, this is his biggest global opening, however precipitous the tail-off may be, and the US figure is in the range of other Cruise movies; it should have opened to a lot more, given its cost and tentpole status, but laying the blame at his door, in terms of historic performance expectations, feels like an outright stitch-up). Now, admittedly, I did spend quite a bit of the movie contemplating whether Cruise had undergone the old photoshopped facial treatment, à la Brad Pitt in Allied (if he did, it’s a much more seamless job here) but I suspect he’s just moisturising like a crazy person and that Grecian 2000 have a happy major shareholder right there. Mostly, the assassination job Variety pulled feels like weak swill, trying to force negatives from “Like, duh” points.
They would have it that Cruise’s presence twisted The Mummy from what would have been a scary movie (because, of course, the previous Mummy trilogy were horror movies, as was Dracula Untold) into an unadulterated Tom Cruise vehicle. Sure, Nick Morton is very much a Tom type, but more than that, he’s very much a blockbuster lead character type. Apparently, he ensured his part was beefed up (like he wasn’t the main character anyway?) and Ahmanet the Mummy’s diminished (because it’s always a good idea to over-expose the scary character?)
The piece also brings in rather daft charges of a disjointed vision, pointing a finger at Dr Jekyll, which clearly has nothing to do with Cruise’s involvement and is part of Universal’s broader arc. They lambast him for bringing in decent scriptwriters for rewrites – well, Chris McQuarrie anyway – which comes across as slightly absurd, given the myriad other issues affecting the movie, and his own editors to reshape it. Essentially, he’s being blamed for trying to fix what was evidently a problematic picture before he hitched his wagon to it.
To be fair to Variety, they recognise the Alex Kurtzman factor, but skirt around Cruise’s damage limitation role in relation to a novice director out of his depth. And really, the fault in relation to the actor, if you’re going to throw blame his way, is hiring Cruise in the first place. You don’t get a star to lead a movie if they’re not going to let them be the star; you can argue all you like about the Mummy itself being the rightful star attraction, but Universal is top-to-bottom charting a course based on a pre-millennium notion that once-big stars will put bums on seats rather than the iconography of the monsters (which only really suggests they have no faith in their Dark Universe).
Whatever you think of Cruise, and his belief system, and his desire to look twenty years younger than he is, it’s difficult to argue he doesn’t consistently work with competent professionals who deliver polished movies. He occasionally blunders (going to Ed Zwick for Jack Reacher 2, but the guy had delivered Cruise a big hit a decade or so earlier), but he generally has sound commercial instincts, whether or not he’d be better off trying to make more interesting choices with character and story, rather than cling to a waning megastar status. It’s likely he agreed to The Mummy as much out of deference to his historic Bad Robot relationship with Kurtzman as the prospect of an easily bankable franchise filler, one where it wouldn’t just be him doing the heavy lifting, so that’s the rub there. But hey, everyone makes mistakes. Even Lucasfilm, giving Episode IX to a tonally incompetent jackass.
Anyway, the major problem with The Mummy isn’t really Cruise, although you might argue he didn’t exert enoughinfluence. The major problem is Kurtzman’s screen story (with Jon Spaihts and Jenny Lumet – the screenplay is credited to McQuarrie, David Koepp and Cruise buddy Dylan Kussman) and Kurtzman himself calling the shots. The Mummy is one of those amorphous movies that’s unable to ground the viewer in any kind of tangible reality and proceeds to cover its ground without any semblance of pace, bearing, or even rudimentary understanding of character. It hopes that, if it moves along at enough of a clip, no one will notice its myriad fundamental problems. But without tempo, without rises and falls and a measured trajectory, fatigue sets in much sooner than it should.
You can see some of the hasty decisions here designed to fix the leaking ship; Russell Crowe’s Dr Jekyll is utilised to give us backstory to Sofie Boutella’s Ahmanet right at the start… but we’re treated to exactly the same recap a couple of acts later (did they think we’d have forgotten?) There’s a desire to hinge the story on Nick’s emotional arc, his progress from amoral tomb robber to a service-to-others type who will sacrifice everything. Which could well be at Cruise’s behest, except that, if you’re going to complain about it, you need to recognise it as one of the few galvanising elements in the screenplay.
No, the issue with this element is that Nick’s all-important love interest is a complete non-starter. Annabelle Wallis is dire as Jenny, lacking a single scrap of personality or spark of chemistry with her co-star. Which makes Nick’s sacrifice all the more artificial and empty as a result. I’d like to argue this isn’t Wallis’ fault and the character’s to blame, but in any given scene she’s the weak link, performance-wise.
Some have suggested The Mummy is the worst Cruise film ever, people who can’t remember Cocktail. What is distinctive in this case is that he’s unable to really impress himself upon the material. It doesn’t end up feeling like a Cruise movie, whatever Variety would like to allude otherwise; rather, it’s a movie with Cruise in it.
Sure, you get a couple of signature Cruise stunts – a spot of abseiling, the zero-G plane sequence, which is actually much too sedate to be effective and probably ought to have been stage entirely in the studio – and did they cut down his scream from the trailer, after it was mocked to the heavens? There’s also an underwater sequence pursuit by the undead that actually isn’t too bad.
But mostly, there’s something rather anonymous about the movie, right down to Nick floating under somersaulting CGI vans and his sub-Nathan Drake amorality (one might charitably suggest his soldier-of-fortune in Iraq status is a reference to Three Kings, but the carefree manner in which the presence of “insurgents” enable him to dispatch Middle Eastern cannon fodder guilt-free suggests otherwise). So there’s a level where the Cruise factor needs addressing, but it’s mostly that he was the wrong guy for a misconceived gig with a director approved by Universal suits who evidently needed sectioning.
The mistake of Cruise’s presence comes into focus when you look at Jekyll. Easily the most enjoyable part of the movie is Crowe’s clinically utilitarian head of the Prodigium organisation (complete with vampire skulls and gillman arms in his collection; Jekyll refers to it as “a warning of monsters”, which might describe the box-office prospects for Universal’s fledgling franchise).
Cruise might be able to do broad (under a layer of prosthetics in Tropic Thunder) but he isn’t the first person you think of. Fatty Crowe, on the other hand, can ham it up with the worst of them, which is exactly what this kind of movie needs and deserves, and he delivers in spades. Jekyll comes on like Crowe doing an impression of Michael Caine pretending to be posh, while, most mirthfully, cock-ernee Hyde is him doing Michael Caine doing an impression of Michael Caine. There’s something endlessly entertaining about how ridiculously unrestrained Crowe is in the role(s), and he deserves bags of congratulations for momentarily lifting the picture during this mid-section.
The other plaudit goes to Boutella – easily the best “proper” performance in the picture – who manages to exert a significant impact, doing tremendous work with negligible dialogue. Admittedly, there are some other solid choices in The Mummy. I quite liked the twist enabling Nick to win out, even if its motivation is a non-starter, it’s given away in trailers, and the desert epilogue looks like an afterthought (oh look, Chris is back!).
Likewise, the decision to reconfigure the Mummy as a sexy psycho dame. Her rampage, sucking life into herself – the best of the effects are her half-formed state, that and the fleeting appearance of Set in the flashback – and creating zombie minions on the way, is effectively rendered, if largely lacking in atmosphere or suspense. More to the point, Boutella creates an interesting character by power of personality. No small feat here, where most of the proceedings are indifferent. I mentioned Colin Trevorrow above – well, not by name – and his buddy Jake Johnson also does reasonably as Nick’s comic relief buddy, all the better once he’s reduced to a wisecracking-Griffin-Dunne-in-An American Werewolf in London apparition.
I haven’t talked about the plot very much, because it’s mostly pretty risible, fumbling its Raiders/Tomb Raider riffs and only really becoming invested in the bits that are plug-ins to the broader Dark Universe. The hero’s connection to the Ahmanet wasn’t a bad way to go, just fumbled in execution (the best moment finds Nick unconsciously driving in a circle back to her, with its echoes of In the Mouth of Madness). As for the two-years older Cruise being a “far younger man” than Crowe, it’s the least of the picture’s issues, and not exactly a new thing in Hollywood.
Perhaps the most curious development in the lambasting of this movie is the rehabilitation of the Brendan Fraser pictures; the first one was passable, the other two lousy, so holding them up as contrasting evidence of success is entirely misleading (except, perhaps, financially). The chief issue with The Mummy is the same one that afflicted Ghost Rider and Blade: Trinity. There are plenty of writers turned directors out there with genuine talent and nous, but they have tended to prove themselves before being given the keys to a $100m blockbuster. Alex Kurtzman is not one of them.