Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Tommy the Mummy Slayer


THE MUMMY

It's mostly a waste of a perfectly good all-powerful resurrected corpse, but it does have a few nice compensations.

2017
Directed by Alex Kurtzman
Written by (deep breath) Jon Spaihts, Jenny Lumet, Dylan Kussman, Christopher McQuarrie, David Koepp, and Alex Kurtzman
With Tom Cruise (Nick Morton), Annabelle Wallis (Jenny Halsey), Jake Johnson (Chris Vail), Russell Crowe (Dr. Henry Jekyll), and Sofia Boutella (Ahmanet)

Spoiler alert: moderate



This thing that Universal's trying to do isn't working, but maybe not for the reasons you'd think.  After all, the basic germ of the idea—that is, exploiting their classic monsters for fun and shareholder value—is a rather anodyne one: I like mummies, and I like pop Egyptology, and you should too.  Of course, as for their decision to create a whole "Dark Universe" of interconnected films, I don't imagine anyone presently thinks that this was a self-evidently great idea.  Yet it has a legitimate tradition behind it (for good or ill), and it did represent a more-or-less reasonable misreading of the movie marketplace.  They might even have pulled it off, if they'd done it with a deft touch—though, to date, neither the studio, nor the line managers appointed to direct the studio's films, have demonstrated anything of the sort.

Besides, while it's obvious by now that the saturation point for labyrinthine interfranchise continuity has been reached, if not already breached, by Marvel and DC, if there were still room in the inn for another cinematic universe, it still probably wouldn't be for more Goddamn superheroes.  It definitely wouldn't be for the Universal Monsters, repurposed as superheroes and run through an explicit copy of the Marvel Method, with a special emphasis on the parts nobody likes.  This was the foundational problem with Dracula Untold, Universal's sluggish vampire superhero origin story; in different ways, it remains the foundational problem for The Mummy, too.  This is how the movie gets sliced through the middle by a lengthy excursion through the headquarters of SHIELD (specifically, their Famous Monsters of Filmland Division); it's how it plows straight through everything, just to arrive at an unsatisfying, "tune in next week to see how Buffy Summers gets out of this one" ending.  The course for this would-be mega-franchise was set in stone ages ago: it's hard to be nimble, I guess, when you plan so far ahead that you have eight movies in development before you even know whether anybody really wanted to see the first.  And I doubt it helps that co-writer Alex Kurtzman, making his (rather obvious) big-ticket directorial debut, is something of a hack.

What's clear is that none of the too-many people involved in The Mummy's creation, having been sucked into the gravity of a whole nascent Universe, could ever simply step back and say, "Isn't this just more of the same, but worse?"  And that is the question that needed to be asked.  Phrased another way, the question is, "Why aren't these Universal Horror movies horror movies?"  Why not stake a claim on a new niche, a hard-R horror franchise, with money thrown at it till it's big enough to be the kind of action-horror blockbuster series we haven't seen since the Alien and Terminator franchises collapsed in on themselves?  The answer, obviously, is "risk," but it turns out there's still risk aplenty in serving out $120 million worth of warm porridge to an audience that has access to troughs full of the stuff already.

Making matters more redundant still, we already have the action-adventure Mummy.  It's not even that old, and while it's not exactly an all-time classic, it was surely a well-remembered good time.  So even the one thing this particular Mummy diligently attempts to do—pump up the scope and spectacle from the 1999 version—it does only intermittently.  Because everything The Mummy '17 does well is done intermittently: for it is, fumblingly, an enjoyable movie, that never quite coheres as a good one.

That's why our tale must begin with an object lesson in gratuitously terrible structure—you know there's something off and unappealingly committee-driven about The Mummy from practically the first frame, as our Nick Fury figure narrates the villain's whole backstory in fine-grained detail, seemingly intent on making dead certain that when this information is repeated later (as it inevitably shall be) it shall serve no legitimate purpose, and do nothing but bring the film to a grinding halt.  In the process, it all but annihilates the air of spooky mystery this PG-13 horror-not-horror film might otherwise have been able to establish.  Nice trick, that.

But flash forward three thousand years or so, and we find a potentially decent B-movie spooling up anyway, as our (anti)hero Nick Morton and his sidekick Chris Vail—a pair of Army recon men with a side business in looting antiquities—prepare to sneak into an Iraqi village deep in the desert.  Their goal: to "liberate" (their words) the ancient treasures they hope it contains from the ruinously fundamentalist custody of ISIS.  They get more than they bargained for, however, when they blow up the place with an airstrike, unearthing an ancient Egyptian tomb a thousand miles away from where you'd expect such a thing.


And, naturally, once the two soldiers—and the archaeologist the Army's called in to scold them for their shenanigans, one Jennifer Halsey—get around to investigating, they discover it contains an ancient and immortal evil: the cursed mummified remains of Ahmanet, the nice lady we saw in that opening flashback killing her pharaonic father, his wife, and her half-brother, and then making a deal with Set, the God of Death (sic), in order to acquire the magical powers she'd need to hold on to her newly-won, bloodstained throne.  So, in short order, you've got your inexplicably severe sandstorms, a dead (and zombified) sidekick, a sick plane crash over Britain, a convoluted (and obnoxiously unnecessary) conspiracy involving the knights of the Second Crusade, and a vaguely-powerful mummy, resurrected and doing evil in London, with only Nick and Jenny to stop her.  That's a bit of a problem, however, since Nick has been chosen by the mummy to serve as the living host for her god and lover, Set—although what this magical mumbo-jumbo means in practice is probably the screenplay's single most overt indulgence in sheer, contemptuous indifference, to the extent you can't be sure if the film's six (credited) writers ever completely agreed on whether this was supposed to be a demonic possession story, or a lousy Faustian seduction, since the former isn't exactly what happens, and the latter doesn't make any sense.

As a synopsis, though, I suppose it scans.  But even as a synopsis, there are medium-sized objections, like the existence of a sarcophagus in Nineveh (Assyria conquered Egypt, not the other way around, idiots), and this is never explained, so you're left with your first impression, which is that they needed a way to get Sgt. Abbott and Pvt. Costello inside a tomb with a mummy, but, sadly, we're not presently at war with Egypt.  (Whereas we are involved in a war in what a title card refers to as "Mesopotamia, the Cradle of Civilization," which is absolutely too cute by half.)  Anyway, your personal mileage may vary: I've never been terribly upset by sensationalist depictions of archaeology (or iconoclastic religions), so the most annoying thing about The Mummy's first act, for me, is the infuriating bowdlerization of Egyptian religion itself—represented by recasting Set as the God of Death, which misses the single most basic point of post-New Kingdom Egyptian soteriology, which is that the gods of death were the good guys, and Set was mainly the God of Being the Villain in the Osiris Story.

Yet still better than most villains these days.

The second-most annoying thing (and since you aren't a giant nerd, it'll surely be your first-most annoying thing) is the flailing attempt to do glib adventure (most potently embodied by Jake Johnson's motormouth sidekick).  Here we run into the brick wall that every Indiana Jones-ish graverobber finds himself unable to bypass—this being the utter inability of writers everywhere to understand Indy's appeal, the passion he felt for each discovery.  A scholar is something that our Nick, who's surprisingly ill-educated for a man who makes his beer money off the sale of stolen antiquities, cannot claim to be; and he also has a hard time being a loveable rogue of any stripe, in part thanks to what, in retrospect, seems like mild miscasting.  It goes without saying that Tom Cruise—one of our most reliably great actors—is above this kind of thing.  But even when Cruise was actually playing rogues (and, honestly, it's been a long time since that was his bread-and-butter), he wasn't loveable.  He was hard-edged and desperate and weird.  And as funny as Cruise can be—even here, he's as committed as he's always been, and the best moments in the whole movie are when Kurtzman rewards his performance by offering him a whole array of Perplexed Cruise Reaction Shots—this brand of sub-Whedonian quipping has never been his bag.

But then, when the bag is as threadbare and full of holes as the one Kurtzman's giant writing team knitted up, Cruise isn't the problem.  Gracious, there's a fair argument to be made that he elevates the whole endeavor, even if it doesn't always play to his strengths as a movie star (physical stunts and being a charismatic asshole), while only haphazardly appealing to his strengths as an actual actor.  His co-stars do sometimes get to help, though.  Once Johnson dies, for example, he's more enjoyable.  (Indeed, whatever else is said about The Mummy, it doesn't have as many problems, and it possesses some of the same strengths, as the Universal flick Kurtzman's actually remaking—which isn't The Mummy '99 at all, let alone The Mummy '32, but An American Werewolf in London.)  Of course, Sophia Boutella's evil mummy is quite possibly the most thinly-written version of the monster there's ever been--I remain convinced that there's an all-time masterpiece Mummy still waiting to be made, that seizes ahold of the real romance at the heart of the monster, but this Mummy, with this mummy, sure as hell isn't it.  And despite it all, Boutella gets Ahmanet to work on a basic, functional level, with spins to a few lines here and there to give the villain more personality and force than the screenplay does.

And when Russell Crowe shows up, playing the face of Dark Universe Cross-Film Continuity—that is, he plays Dr. Henry Jekyll, because Dr. Frakenstein was, I suppose, too obvious, and while Dr. Jekyll's no Universal Monster, he frankly might as well be—we get the performance that best blends the goofy campiness of this film's action-adventure pretensions with the comic-book-crossover cod-seriousness it sometimes seems to be reaching for.  It leaves one in the uncomfortable position of saying that the most honestly-enjoyable interchange of this Mummy movie is when the franchise interloper whips his Edward Hyde out.

Pity that it comes part-and-parcel with yet another secret organization dedicated to fighting evil and merging disparate film series, but so it goes.

(Of course, someone has to be The Girl, but it's not even the creaky cliches that really break Jenny; it's Annabelle Wallis deciding to give the material no better than it warrants—and Kurtzman certainly doesn't help.  If he rewards Cruise, he punishes her.  At times her whole performance devolves into little more than an endless series of cutaways to Annie Edison-level fake gasps.)

The gasping is bound to be fake in this Mummy, though; it doesn't even reach the active horror of its frothy 90s predecessor.  Honestly, it might be trying harder, only to deliver fewer results: it has horror in it (Nick's nightmare sequences are generally good and appropriately full of dread); but the monster imagery sometimes seems out-and-out arbitrary (we're homaging Kwaidan here, of all things, whereas there's just no telling where the odd doubling of Ahmanet's irises comes from, except from the most obvious place, and that's In the Mouth of Madness—which mainly serves to remind you how awesome John Carpenter's The Mummy would be, though he essentially already made it, with Prince of Darkness).  At first blush, I actually liked the herky-jerky, almost stop-motion effect they use for the reanimated corpses—but, if you've seen one PG-13 Dust Zombie, you've seen them all (and you'll see them again and again here).  The action hits higher highs, to be sure.  That heavily-pimped plane crash from the trailer is, let's admit, genuinely amazing, and the whole sequence to which it belongs represents The Mummy's most intense flirtation with the possibility of perfection, managing to be scary, thrilling, and even darkly humorous, without grinding any of its gears.  But The Mummy tends to waste its other seemingly-clever action setpieces; it certainly never does anything that well again.

I'll say this for it anyway: it moves quickly, and it's a surprisingly easy watch for any movie that's bottomed out this hard critically.  (Though it does still have that wet fart of an ending to get to, of course.  Seriously: just correct that ending, and the underwhelming half-romance, half-redemption that drives it, and you've automatically dragged The Mummy up onto dry land.)  In any event, as far as summertime diversions go, you could do worse.  Don't let anyone tell you it's awful.  The problem with The Mummy is only that its good parts, of which there are indeed a fair damn few, are nevertheless bound together with such a surfeit of samey mediocrity.

Score:  5/10

2 comments:

  1. Love that poster tagline and the idea of Cruise taking "The Mummy" movies' traditionally female role. Or is that down to the writers ripping off Tobe Hooper's "Lifeforce"? Tom "Jack Reacher" Cruise is an artist of the closeted high-concept, if nothing else:
    http://scrc.blogs.wm.edu/files/2015/04/BramBlog01-733x1024.jpg

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    1. You know, The Mummy '17 would be at least a little bit better, in fact, if it did explicitly put Cruise in that role.

      I would like to take this opportunity to make a correction to the review though--and, indeed, it's a mistake I've seen all over the place. It's the statement that Edward Hyde isn't a Universal Monster. But he is, and 1953's Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde proves it (Jekyll was even played by Boris Karloff). Did anyone involved in The Mummy '17 know this? Quite possibly not.

      Either way, I can't express how bummed I am that this didn't make its way into the 30-film Universal Monsters Legacy collection. I like the Abott and Costello Meets series.

      P.S.: I really need to see Lifeforce one day.

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