Review: 'The Mummy' Is A Mess, And It Didn't Have To Be
According to Wikipedia (and pointed out to me by our own Genevieve Burgess), Tom Cruise turned down the role that eventually went to Brendan Fraser in Stephen Sommer’s 1999 version of The Mummy. Which makes me wonder: Has Cruise just been kicking himself for that decision all these years? Is he kicking himself now, as reviews for his own take on the franchise are coming in?
First, let’s address the undead elephant in the room. No, this version of The Mummy is not as good as the Brendan Fraser one. And it may make you appreciate that earlier iteration even more. What the 1999 version did well was balance a lot of tones successfully. It was a rollicking adventure, a convincing romance, and a fun action film. The cast has real chemistry, and their characters were actually appealing. It had a consistent point of view.
And it’s clear that the latest version is aware of the shadow cast over it by the previous film. There is even a little throwback Easter egg, when Jenny (Annabelle Wallis, Peaky Blinders) is struggling to get to Tom Cruise’s Nick while in the Prodigium’s base of operations. She picks up a book to hit a guard with… and it sure looks like the Book of the Dead that Rachel Weisz’s Evie opens during the 1999 film. It could even be argued that the character of Nick is an attempted throwback to Brendan Fraser’s hero, Rick O’Connell. Nick isn’t a straight-arrow hero. Instead he’s a vaguely amoral thief, someone who makes mistakes, approaches situations with humor and selfishness, and sometimes does the right thing. But he never seems to have the basic honor that made you root for Rick, and his character never gels. Nothing in this movie gels.
Perhaps it’s because there are six writers involved, which is twice the number credited on the earlier one. And nobody managed to pick a lane. Sure, at times this film is scary. At times it’s funny. There are some well executed action sequences. And there are moments that try unsuccessfully to be one or more of those things as well. Unlike the 1999 film, there doesn’t seem to be a clear driving vision behind this one, to hold the elements together and make it serve a larger purpose. Like, oh I dunno, a story.
It also suffers from the burden of perception. At this point we are all aware that this is no mere summer blockbuster but the launchpad for Universal’s new “Dark Universe” franchise. Entering the theater, we know that what we are going to witness is not a contained story but something that will send tendrils out into a whole universe of monsters and mayhem. We know that Frankenstein’s Monster and the Invisible Man will be in this universe. We know that Javier Bardem and Johnny Depp will be in this universe. We know that Russell Crowe is playing Dr. Henry Jekyll, in this film and others. Building a shared universe is no crime for a movie studio, and they are welcome to their own expectations for the role this movie will play in building it. But did we, as the audience, also need to have that expectation? After all, we didn’t expect The Avengers would be coming when we sat down to watch Iron Man. Would our perception of the film be different if it were allowed to be its own entity for a few weeks?
I don’t have the answer, because I didn’t have the luxury of NOT knowing all that before I sat down. And really, the “Dark Universe” is on its way no matter what, so maybe it doesn’t matter how successful this installment is.
So, if we set aside the looming shadow of an 18-year-old Brendan Fraser movie and the baggage of a shared universe in its infancy, how does The Mummy fare? I can sum it up in a single word. It’s a mess. It’s a tangle of ambitions, tones, successes and failures. It’s trying really hard — for laughs, for scares — and you feel the effort. It isn’t irredeemably bad, and it isn’t a masterpiece. It goes down adequately with popcorn.
A plot with tomb-sized holes works against it. Sometimes the dialogue is too concerned with lengthy explanations at the worst times, and other things get no explanation at all. Most things happen because the plot demanded it, not because the story justified it. Motivations and decisions often make no sense, and if you think too hard about nearly anything, large or small, you’ll get frustrated. I can accept that the mysterious Prodigium organization has a secret lair in London. That’s fine. But why would you bring an entity of ancient evil to the middle of a densely populated area like that? Answer: because it’ll make for a cool action sequence. Why does a military freight plane only have one parachute? Answer: to give Nick a heroic moment to save Jenny, and also because it’ll make for a cool action sequence. Why would a smart man like Dr. Jekyll ever be remiss in taking his scary medication on time, when he and everyone else knows that without his injection he’ll turn into Mr. Hyde? Answer: because it’ll make for a cool action sequence, and because you can’t have Dr. Jekyll in a movie without seeing Mr. Hyde at least once.
To be fair, the action is really cool to look at. Tom Cruise survives a plane crash, nearly gets rolled over by an ambulance and a city bus, and almost gets hit by a train. Those are modes of transportation and not ancient Egyptian corpses, I’m sure you’ve noticed. But there are corpses — some old, some fresh, all desiccated. Sometimes the corpse fights are played for laughs, with body parts breaking and flying everywhere. And sometimes they actually are creepy. Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: The Secret Service) plays the titular Mummy, and her Ahmanet is an unrepentant badass. Anytime she is on screen the whole movie comes alive (or undead, or… it got more interesting, OK?). Ahmanet is a princess who was the sole heir to her father’s kingdom, until the day he had a new child, a baby boy, who would one day take her birthright. So she prayed to Set, the god of death, and got the power to get revenge and claim her due. Perhaps the biggest plot hole is why her power pact with the god entailed her also needing to find a chosen one to offer to Set as his own vessel. Could she not have just been his vessel herself? Could she not have just asked for power, to do his bidding? At no point did she seem like she needed or wanted a man, until she did. And that man, of course, is Tom Cruise. You know what? I’m just going to refer to his character as Tom Cruise from now on. His name doesn’t matter. He’s super Tom Cruise-y.
Ahmanet is all intensity and horror. She’s also a man-eater — like, she literally sucks the energy out of men to revive herself from her long entombment. Only men, not women. Why they couldn’t have given her just one lady to add to her meal plan, I couldn’t say. But she also controls spiders and rats and sandstorms with her face on them, and even Tom Cruise to a point. She’s no joke. She could have been the driving force of the movie, if she hadn’t spent a lot of the time either buried, chained, or popping up in Tom Cruise’s mind. There are shots toward the end of the film where you see her slowly walking silhouette, and for a second it just feels like everything a Mummy movie should be: ancient, inexorable menace.
And on the other end of the spectrum is Chris Vail (Jake Johnson, The New Girl), Tom Cruise’s partner in military reconnaissance and treasure hunting. He is clearly the comic relief, and when the pair are together you get the banter (sometimes forced, sometimes fun) that feels at home in an adventure film. Even after (SPOILER ALERT) Vail dies, he still is the comic relief, coming to Cruise in visions in bar bathrooms. The movie loses track of him for awhile, and his absence shows, but when he comes back it’s worth it.
Jekyll, weird accent and all, works. There is just something about this late-career Russell Crowe we’ve been getting recently, in movies like The Nice Guys and The Man with the Iron Fists, that I find appealing. He’s settling into a character actor mold and it suits him. And his Prodigium organization has potential, ill-defined though it may be in this film. There is a moment when they first arrive at the London base, and the camera reveals all the evil artifacts that have been collected over the years. A vampire skull in a jar. A webbed hand. And I couldn’t help but imagine how much fun a movie focusing on that group would look like, with all that story potential to play with. Anyway, if Jekyll becomes the Agent Coulson or Nick Fury of this ragtag monster team-up Universal is building, I’m cool with it.
Tom Cruise, as mentioned, is playing Tom Cruise. He is a bonafide star, and as such the movie goes out of it’s way to set him up for future installments. I won’t spoil the ending here, and I’m sure everyone will be dissecting it soon, but I will say that the climax is projected throughout. Probably the weirdest thing about the film is that we are told repeatedly that there is a curse on Tom Cruise, being Ahmanet’s “chosen,” and there is no way he can escape it. So yeah, perhaps the details of how it plays out are a surprise. But there is in fact a curse, and he does in fact fail to escape it.
There is an unconvincing romance with Jenny, based on a one-night stand and some petty theft. I’m not sure if Cruise just didn’t have romantic chemistry with Wallis, or if the script couldn’t figure out how to build it properly. In theory, their “romance” should serve to redeem his character, and to give him an alternative to Ahmanet’s advances. And it does, in the sense that the plot demanded it, so yes — his character makes choices based on Jenny and not himself at key intervals. And yet the idea of actual love between the two is undercut at every turn. Remember that single parachute I mentioned? He gives it to Jenny, to save her in the plane crash. And when she thanks him, pointing out that he defied expectations by not being a selfish prick in that moment, he admits that he didn’t realize there WAS only one parachute when he made the decision.
Cruise does his best to sell it, and he seems game, but maybe that’s the problem. He IS a star, and being appealing is what he DOES (arguably well, depending on your feelings about him). So the writing lets him do his schtick, rather than actually building a real character arc for him. Not to keep pounding the Fraser drum, but part of what made the 1999 film work was that nobody expected Brendan Freaking Fraser to pull off that sort of charming, swashbuckling-with-a-sense-of-humor performance. It was a clearly written, well-defined role, and he owned it. It made us see him in a different light as an actor.
When was the last time we saw Tom Cruise in a different light? If you discount his part in Tropic Thunder, which was mostly prosthetics anyway, I’d say the last time he really surprised us was in Interview With The Vampire. There he proved he could do high camp, and he could do evil, and he could still be charming as hell. And watching The Mummy made me miss that version of Tom Cruise. Granted, this role didn’t require him to be campy, or evil, or even that charming. We know he has it in him, if he is given something to work with. But this is a franchise and they needed movie star Tom Cruise, not actor Tom Cruise. And that is precisely what they got.
So, if you’re looking for a well-plotted story, or any consistency in tone, you’ll probably be disappointed. And that’s a shame, because there were moments of potential where you could almost see the movie it could have been, had there been a real vision behind it. I’ll tell you one thing though. If you would like to see Tom Cruise get the shit kicked out of him on several different occasions, you will enjoy this film. Man, does that guy know how to take a beating.