It takes a special talent to make Tom Cruise unlikeable.
After all, he’s one of our last remaining true movie stars, the kind of name that can appear at the top of a poster and be its own tag line. He’s the last of a dying breed, a man who’s career has been carefully curated to only show him in the best light. Movies exist for Tom Cruise, and never the other way around. From his revitalized Mission Impossible franchise to surprise hits like Jack Reacher and Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise’s brand has always been centered on trusting that he knows which projects to pick, and that he can always bend them to fit his distinct strengths. Maybe it’s fair to say then, that he doesn’t fail The Mummy so much as The Mummy fails him, with director Alex Kurtzman turning Cruise’s innate movie star charm into a toxic combination of ego and smarm that is only the beginning of this movie’s problems.
Unlike the campy tone and clever action-adventure beats of 1999’s The Mummy, this modern reboot displays an almost sociopathic degree of incoherence. The opening scenes introduce us to Nick Morton and Chris Vail (Cruise and Jake Johnson), who are inexplicably located in Iraq and are some sort of bounty hunter-slash-rangers for the US Army. Somehow they have the power to call in drone strikes but are also immediately chastised by their commanding officer. It just doesn’t make much sense, and neither does the inclusion of the Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), who is also both working for the Army and Dr. Henry Jackyll (Russell Crowe). From the opening scenes, it’s just never clear who any of these people are, what they do, or why we should care about them before they’ve fallen into a sink hole and they find the Mummy’s tomb.
What follows is a mixed bag of leaden exposition, careless universe building, and shockingly good moments of action. Poor Russell Crowe has to bare the brunt of the first two, his Dr. Jekyll nonsensically tasked with being the head of a group of, uh, monster hunters? His monologues are intended to flesh out this “new world of gods and monsters,” but given how ill-conceived Universal’s much touted “Dark Universe” is, his speeches only serve to confuse the matter. It’s just never clear what his shadowy group does, or even how his powers work in the brief moment Mr. Hyde shows up to fight with Cruise. There’s also a bunch of backstory about a McGuffin dagger that can either break the Mummy’s curse or unleash unspeakable evil, all of which is meant to give some sort of dramatic stakes to Nick’s story but never succeeds at being more than fuel to keep the plot moving.
It doesn’t help that Cruise, Johnson, and Wallis are simply not left with much to do. Johnson, in particular, is unceremoniously killed off, only to haunt Cruise for the rest of the movie, complete with ghoulish makeup. (Disappointingly, even his skilled comedic chops can’t help the dreadful dialogue, although his sudden resurrection at the end hints that he’ll be sticking around should there be a sequel). Wallis meanwhile is given very little to do other be a damsel in distress, a strange point given how played out that cliche is by now, while Cruise runs, jumps, falls, and barrels his way through set pieces in the way only Tom Cruise can do. Sadly The Mummy foregoes many practical effects and instead relies on a number of CGI scenes that simply give little weight to the proceedings.
Yet peppered in amongst the nonsense are some of the most legitimately thrilling moments a big studio picture has displayed this year. The much lauded zero-gravity sequence, in which Cruise and Wallis scramble for a parachute in a plummeting plane, would not be out of place in Mission Impossible. It’s exciting and tense, and the audience I was collectively sighed afterwards, as though the whole time they had been holding their breath. Likewise, The Mummy has a few expertly placed horror beats that beat anything the 1999 version had attempted. Ahmanet’s minions are more zombie-like, shambling in strange, angular patterns that give them an otherworldly feel that is distinctly unnerving. Sure, The Mummy ends up falling back on tired tricks like the Mummy’s face in a cloud, but it also gives us a disorienting and bizarre sequence with a literal murder of crows and a claustrophobic underwater rescue.
But none of the parts that work can overcome the fact that this movie feels improbable. Despite being released in 2017, it’s as though it had been pieced together by some sort of inhuman machine that had never actually watched a movie or spoken to a human, and then ripped from the aether fully formed but like the main characters of this film, more dead than alive. It is simply mind boggling that it begins with a firefight in Iraq without recognizing that maybe, maybe this real world war zone does not exactly scream “action adventure.” It is genuinely discomforting to have a female mummy who, in the hands of Sofia Boutella, manages some semblance of soulfulness (she murdered her family to be Queen because it was the only way to guarantee power in a patriarchal world), only to be bizarrely and brazenly fetishized by the camera, and chained and tortured throughout the film, while the other female lead is unmercifully dangled in front of danger so Cruise can rescue her.
In the end, The Mummy feels like a movie written by committee (it has three credited writers), none of whom spoke to each other about how their parts would fit together. Was Cruise a psychopathic mercenary or an Indiana Jones-esque thief with a heart of gold? Was this going to be an Uncharted or Tomb Raider type adventure, or an ode to gothic horror? Was Ahmanet a symbol of female empowerment, or a shockingly racist parable about Middle Eastern immigrants coming into the UK and corrupting it from within? The Mummy never resolves these core questions and thus never carves out an identity of its own.
It might not be as big and dumb and weird as Gods of Egypt, or as delightfully campy as the 1999 Mummy, but this modern reboot is so strange, and so incoherent, that it at the very least is interesting in a way that many blockbusters no longer are. Like your friend who has had just one too many drinks, The Mummy keeps you on your toes, never quite sure what it’s going to do next because it seemingly has no regard for any rules. Not so-bad-it’s-good, and not so-bad-it’s-bad, The Mummy is a weird failure that needs to be seen to be believed. Just maybe not on the big screen.