Skip to main content

It's not an exact science, this business.

The Mummy
(2017)

(SPOILERS) A pinch of salt is usually needed when reports of a blockbuster’s rep as great or disastrous start 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 having 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 only 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 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 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 20 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 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 enough influence. 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, making 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, despite what Variety would like to make out; 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 to 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?) and an underwater sequence pursued 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. 



Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

I just hope my death makes more cents than my life.

Joker (2019)
(SPOILERS) So the murder sprees didn’t happen, and a thousand puff pieces desperate to fan the flames of such events and then told-ya-so have fallen flat on their faces. The biggest takeaway from Joker is not that the movie is an event, when once that seemed plausible but not a given, but that any mainstream press perspective on the picture appears unable to divorce its quality from its alleged or actual politics. Joker may be zeitgeisty, but isn’t another Taxi Driver in terms of cultural import, in the sense that Taxi Driver didn’t have a Taxi Driver in mind when Paul Schrader wrote it. It is, if you like, faux-incendiary, and can only ever play out on that level. It might be more accurately described as a grubbier, grimier (but still polished and glossy) The Talented Ripley, the tale of developing psychopathy, only tailored for a cinemagoing audience with few options left outside of comic book fare.

You guys sure like watermelon.

The Irishman aka I Heard You Paint Houses (2019)
(SPOILERS) Perhaps, if Martin Scorsese hadn’t been so opposed to the idea of Marvel movies constituting cinema, The Irishman would have been a better film. It’s a decent film, assuredly. A respectable film, definitely. But it’s very far from being classic. And a significant part of that is down to the usually assured director fumbling the execution. Or rather, the realisation. I don’t know what kind of crazy pills the ranks of revered critics have been taking so as to recite as one the mantra that you quickly get used to the de-aging effects so intrinsic to its telling – as Empire magazine put it, “you soon… fuggadaboutit” – but you don’t. There was no point during The Irishman that I was other than entirely, regrettably conscious that a 75-year-old man was playing the title character. Except when he was playing a 75-year-old man.

So you want me to be half-monk, half-hitman.

Casino Royale (2006)
(SPOILERS) Despite the doubts and trepidation from devotees (too blonde, uncouth etc.) that greeted Daniel Craig’s casting as Bond, and the highly cynical and low-inspiration route taken by Eon in looking to Jason Bourne's example to reboot a series that had reached a nadir with Die Another Day, Casino Royale ends up getting an enormous amount right. If anything, its failure is that it doesn’t push far enough, so successful is it in disarming itself of the overblown set pieces and perfunctory plotting that characterise the series (even at its best), elements that would resurge with unabated gusto in subsequent Craig excursions.

For the majority of its first two hours, Casino Royale is top-flight entertainment, with returning director Martin Campbell managing to exceed his excellent work reformatting Bond for the ‘90s. That the weakest sequence (still good, mind) prior to the finale is a traditional “big” (but not too big) action set piece involving an attempt to…

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

You're skipping Christmas! Isn't that against the law?

Christmas with the Kranks (2004)
Ex-coke dealer Tim Allen’s underwhelming box office career is, like Vince Vaughn’s, regularly in need of a boost from an indiscriminate public willing to see any old turkey posing as a prize Christmas comedy.  He made three Santa Clauses, and here is joined by Jamie Lee Curtis as a couple planning to forgo the usual neighbourhood festivities for a cruise.

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

We’ll bring it out on March 25 and we’ll call it… Christmas II!

Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
(SPOILERS) Alexander Salkind (alongside son Ilya) inhabited not dissimilar territory to the more prolific Dino De Laurentis, in that his idea of manufacturing a huge blockbuster appeared to be throwing money at it while being stingy with, or failing to appreciate, talent where it counted. Failing to understand the essential ingredients for a quality movie, basically, something various Hollywood moguls of the ‘80s would inherit. Santa Claus: The Movie arrived in the wake of his previously colon-ed big hit, Superman: The Movie, the producer apparently operating under the delusion that flying effects and :The Movie in the title would induce audiences to part with their cash, as if they awarded Saint Nick a must-see superhero mantle. The only surprise was that his final cinematic effort, Christopher Columbus: The Discovery, wasn’t similarly sold, but maybe he’d learned his lesson by then. Or maybe not, given the behind-camera talent he failed to secure.

On a long enough timeline, the survival of everyone drops to zero.

Fight Club (1999)
(SPOILERS) Still David Fincher’s peak picture, mostly by dint of Fight Club being the only one you can point to and convincingly argue that that the source material is up there with his visual and technical versatility. If Seven is a satisfying little serial-killer-with-a-twist story vastly improved by his involvement (just imagine it directed by Joel Schumacher… or watch 8mm), Fight Club invites him to utilise every trick in the book to tell the story of not-Tyler Durden, whom we encounter at a very peculiar time in his life.

When primal forces of nature tell you to do something, the prudent thing is not to quibble over details.

Field of Dreams (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s a near-Frank Darabont quality to Phil Alden Robinson producing such a beloved feature and then subsequently offering not all that much of note. But Darabont, at least, was in the same ballpark as The Shawshank Redemption with The Green MileSneakers is good fun, The Sum of All Our Fears was a decent-sized success, but nothing since has come close to his sophomore directorial effort in terms of quality. You might put that down to the source material, WP Kinsella’s 1982 novel Shoeless Joe, but the captivating magical-realist balance hit by Field of Dreams is a deceptively difficult one to strike, and the biggest compliment you can play Robinson is that he makes it look easy.

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…