What made Tom Cruise a movie star? It wasn’t his toothy smile or his all-American dimples. It wasn’t that he was cocky enough to be loved, but also vulnerable enough to be lovable, although that certainly helped. It wasn’t even the fact that the way he runs on screen tells us more about the fundamental nature of cinema than anyone has conveyed with a stride since Eadweard Muybridge trained his camera on a galloping horse. No, Tom Cruise became a movie star because he possessed something that galvanized all of those individual qualities into something special — a need for quality control.
Just consider those credits: “Risky Business.” “Top Gun.” “Born on the Fourth of July.” Cruise was a human seal of freshness decades before today’s Hollywood A-listers needed Rotten Tomatoes to validate their work. If “Cocktail” was the worst movie an actor made in the first decade of their career, they were doing alright. And Cruise, against all odds, has maintained his god-level batting average for much of the three decades that followed; he’s only racked up 42 acting credits since 1981, and virtually every single one of them is memorable in its own way.
All of this is to say that not only is “The Mummy” the worst movie that Tom Cruise has ever made, it’s also obviously the worst movie that Tom Cruise has ever made — it stands out like a flat note on a grand piano. It’s not that Cruise hasn’t had misfires before (and between “Rock of Ages,” “Oblivion,” and “Jack Reacher: Never Stop Never Reaching” they’re happening at a faster rate), but “The Mummy” is the first of his films that doesn’t feel like a Tom Cruise movie. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s that it never could have been good. It’s an irredeemable disaster from start to finish, an adventure that entertains only via glimpses of the adventure it should have been. It’s the kind of movie that Tom Cruise became a household name by avoiding at all costs.
The inaugural installment of the instantly ill-conceived “Dark Universe” cinematic universe (a very 2017 way of saying that Universal is trying to dust off, bundle, and re-franchise the most famous creatures in its vault), “The Mummy” is an extremely grim welcome to a new new world of gods and monsters. Cruise plays Nick Morton, a Nathan Drake wannabe with so little personality that he makes Brendan Fraser look like Errol Flynn. In one of this interminable film’s only clever visuals, he and his chatty assistant Chris (Jake Johnson) are introduced into Iraq, the cradle of civilization, as insurgent bullets shred apart some of the local antiquities. These men work with the U.S. army in some unclear capacity, but really they’re treasure hunters. And they’re about to stumble onto the find of a lifetime, as a firefight reveals a massive sinkhole beneath the sand. There, 1,000 miles away from Egypt, they stumble across a sarcophagus that’s swamped in mercury and spiders. Archeologist, romantic interest, and blonde exposition machine Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Frances Wallis) tells Nick that this is bad. But, spoiler alert, it turns out that it’s actually really bad.
It’s not a tomb…it’s a prison. And Princess Ahmanet (“Kingsman” baddie Sofia Boutella, whose half-naked and heavily tattooed mummy is too much of a fetish object for the film to pretend otherwise) is itching to get out so that she can continue her maddeningly vague plan to terrorize London with bad special effects; London, of course, doesn’t flinch. A zombie-like tangle of rotted flesh and gray bones, Ahmanet is searching to reunite a red jewel and a rusty dagger so that she can transform a man into a vessel for Set, the god of death; when Nick pops open her casket it’s love at first sight. Meanwhile, in old Blighty, Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe, who inspired my crowd to audibly boo when he introduced his character by name), is doing his best to keep the world of evil contained in its Canopic Jars.
A recent discovery of ruins beneath the London tube has Jekyll concerned, though not anywhere near as concerned as viewers might be about the fact that the Nick Fury of the Dark Universe is a drug fiend who turns into a purple-eyed Bob Hoskins imitator if he misses an injection of his meds.
The idea that anyone will want to watch a standalone movie about this Jekyll and Hyde is preposterous at best, and sadly delusional at worst. You have to earn an interconnected movie universe, you can’t just assume that people will be grateful you assembled some characters who have nothing in common save for their shared corporate interests. Once upon a time audiences were asked to tolerate Hollywood’s creative bankruptcy, now we’re expected to applaud it — in 10 years, the copyright lawyers might get top billing over the stars.
“The Mummy,” much like the enduringly delightful 1999 version, tries to juggle a number of different tones, often alternating between action, horror, and comedy within the span of a single scene. That would be a difficult feat for a dexterous master like Bong Joon Ho, but for Alex Kurtzman — whose only previous directing credit is for a limp 2012 Chris Pine weepy called “People Like Us” — the challenge is clearly beyond his talents. The laughs are few and far between, as neither Johnson nor Cruise has ever been forced to parrot such weak banter, and the jump scares are haphazardly peppered into random scenes, as though that might be enough to indicate a sense of impending doom. It’s even worse when Kurtzman tries to meld those two modes into one, this tonally scattershot movie paying a half-assed homage to “An American Werewolf in London” before abandoning the idea in favor of generic genre sludge.
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