Whenever writing a review on a Tom Cruise movie, I often feel the need to defend my enjoyment of his work. Despite getting frequently derided — especially on social media — he’s still a huge star, one who seemingly puts everything he has into his movies. Maybe he shows off a bit too much, making it clear that he does his own stunts and being all too willing to take his shirt off to show what great shape he’s in as a 50-year-old.
But after the surprise that was 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, Cruise may have finally hit a rut or reached the limits of his movie-star superpowers. Last year’s Jack Reacher: Never Go Back was awful, with Cruise mailing in his performance in a lackluster film. Maybe he was getting too old for this stuff. Now, we have The Mummy, a baffling project for Cruise to be involved with. At first glance, this isn’t a franchise that could feature Cruise, something he could control. He’s just a cog, a work-for-hire actor.
Cruise has done plenty of one-offs that weren’t necessarily going to yield sequels (though probably would have, if they’d been successful enough), most recently Oblivion and Knight and Day. But during promotions for The Mummy, Universal made it known that the movie was intended to kickstart its “Dark Universe,” a cinematic series that revived all of the studio’s classic movie monsters, such as Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, and Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Where exactly did Cruise fit in this cinematic universe? Or was Cruise latching onto something else that ideally could match the deep universe of characters and stories that Marvel has created and DC hopes to emulate? Hasbro is hoping to follow that path with its Transformers franchise and other properties. Was Cruise going to appear in some of the other “Dark Universe” movies that Universal is developing, like Bride of Frankenstein and The Invisible Man? Would his Nick Morton be like Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury in the Marvel movies, making brief cameos to let everyone know that everything was tying together into a larger story?
This is the problem when studios try to create these cinematic universes without making sure that each film stands on its own. There are just too many questions that leave a particular movie feeling incomplete. It could be argued that The Mummy ends in a way that leaves an eternally cursed soul tasked with traveling the world for a cure to what plagues him (or her). Plenty of other movies have ended with leaving a door open for a sequel. But The Mummy is trying to set up so much more here, much like Batman v Superman did for the DC Extended Universe, that it can’t succeed on its own merits.
Perhaps that nod to a larger story is obvious in its casting. Russell Crowe is still a pretty big star, so if he’s cast in what looks like a supporting role, it’s bound to be an important one. And that certainly applies to this “Dark Universe.” (Actually, his character is more likely to be the shepherd of this cinematic universe.) Universal has already revealed and promoted the fact that Crowe is playing Dr. Henry Jekyll, which means that his alter-ego is sure to be seen as well. It’s too bad Universal was OK with spoiling that because it may have been a decent surprise in the movie. (Probably not, though.) But yes, Dr. Jekyll is the gateway to a larger world of monsters among us.
Nick Morton does seem like an attempt by Cruise to play against type. He’s kind of a rogue operative, taking advantage of his position as long-range reconnaissance for the U.S. military in the Middle East to comb through ruins and rubble for some treasures that can be sold on the black market. Morton got the location on his latest pursuit by sleeping with an archaeologist (Annabelle Wallis) who has a lead on a big-time dig in Iraq (the former Mesopotamia). A clash with local insurgents leads to Morton and sidekick Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) calling in an air strike that uncovers what turns out to be an Egyptian tomb. Except, as archaeologist Dr. Halsey figures out, it’s not a tomb — it’s a prison.
(Speaking of Johnson, I presume his role was meant to emulate Griffin Dunne’s in 1981’s An American Werewolf in London. If so, that’s one of my favorite movies, so I was kind of offended by the attempt as a horror/comedy fan. OK, maybe it was a nod to another classic — also released by Universal Studios — but the filmmakers should have pushed that further, making it resemble Dunne’s grotesquely deteriorating appearance. Just go see An American Werewolf in London instead, people.)
Naturally, greed, curiosity and bad decisions lead to the release of Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella, who needs a part where she’s not covered in make-up), who has ambitions on finding a ideal host for reviving the Egyptian god of chaos Set and remaking the world in their vision. That same attempt was foiled thousands of years ago, when Ahmanet was entombed alive after killing her father, his wife and their young child so that she could be the heir to the throne. But she gets a reset on that once her sarcophagus is released from the elaborate tomb created by the Egyptians.
Lucky for her, Tom Cruise is the first guy nearby to be chosen as her next ideal mate — or sacrifice. (The movie might try to get some humor from Cruise being the ideal choice, but ultimately takes itself too seriously for that.)
From there, The Mummy turns into more of a typical Tom Cruise movie with lots of running — including running from a sandstorm, which we already saw him do in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol — trying to save the girl while assuring her that everything is going to be OK, and then the climactic showdown with the bad guy. Even a character established as a selfish asshole turns out to be a noble soul after all. Not even the “Dark Universe” could stop Tom Cruise from making The Mummy into a Tom Cruise movie.
But depending on Cruise’s role in that “Dark Universe,” The Mummy might just end up being another movie in a nearly 40-year body of work. If it ends up standing out on his résumé, it likely won’t be for the right reasons. The Mummy might end up being remembered for being Tom Cruise’s surrender to Hollywood and its desire to make everything a cinematic universe now. If only he picked the right one to latch onto. But maybe Cruise didn’t want to join the Marvel or DC universes when he’s his own superhero in virtually every movie he makes.
I’ve never liked the Brendan Fraser movies of the early 2000s, because they were adventure movies rather than horror films, and I kind of resented the attempt to make Indiana Jones movies. I just wanted new Indiana Jones movies (yes, even if they ended up being The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). The CGI in those movies was also terrible and soulless, though digital effects have obviously come a long way in 18 years. But if the idea was to create a new appreciation for those movies with this rebooted version of The Mummy, they look far better in comparison.
I love the classic Universal monster movies and feel a twinge of excitement every time reports of a new effort to revive those creatures circulate online. But at what point does the studio admit that maybe this isn’t a good idea. Between the Mummy movies, Van Helsing, and Dracula Untold, this franchise is the proverbial undead monster being brought back to life that should have just stayed buried.