I just saw the Tom Cruise starring The Mummy, the critically panned and financially disappointing tent-pole film from this past summer. I could dig into the way it tries (and pretty much fails) to set up a cinematic “Dark Universe” for the traditional monster properties that Universal is known for. It seems that kind of thing is elusive for anyone but Disney.
What I’m more interested in is how the film functions as a film, and why it’s so underwhelming compared to the much campier and much more beloved The Mummy starring Brendan Fraser from 1999.
M99 was set entirely in Egypt, and back in the 1920s. Part of that was, I’m sure, an attempt to catch some of the glow of the Indiana Jones films, which were of course an inspiration. It also put moviegoers in the mindset of this as being an homage to the classic monster pictures from the 30s. It gave the filmmakers license to have arch dialog, stylized action sequences, one-dimensional characters and a few old-school camera tricks. At the time, the film was decried as an example of Hollywood soullessness, but it was exactly what a summer blockbuster should be–fun.
M17, on the other hand, eschews Egypt almost entirely and moves the action to the present day. There’s an (overlong) introductory history lesson, but then it moves to Iraq (an excuse to add some of-the-moment fire fights and a drone strike), and from there to London (an excuse to shoehorn in Dr. Jekyll). Everything seems off point. This could have been enjoyable, if the film had any kind of a sense of fun with the time/place displacement for the action. But it doesn’t. Instead of a face in a cloud of sand, there’s a face in a cloud of shattered glass. Snore.
Brendan Fraser was known before M99, but he was far from a household name. This film put him on the map (for a brief time). He was charismatic, roguish, insistent on his own intelligence, which was more often than not effective. Tom Cruise has charisma for days, but his character in M17 is all over the map. He’s kind of a doofus (which I don’t have a problem with) but there needs to be a point in the film where he stops reacting and starts acting. This moment is saved for very nearly the last moment, and it’s overdue.
Both films have a “strong” female character who is more knowledgeable and more considered than their male counterpart. I put strong in quotes because neither Rachel Weisz in M99 nor Annabelle Wallis in M17 have any real impact on the story beyond providing occasional information and then getting saved by the hero. But at least in M99 there’s some real chemistry between the leads. The “romance” between Cruise and Wallis is laughable, for more reasons than just the fact that he’s 22 years older than she is.
I can’t really say that Sofia Boutella is better or worse than Arnold Vosloo. Both of them run around in skimpy clothes and kill a bunch of people in a bid to sacrifice someone to bring someone else to life. Vosloo gets points for never speaking English. The endless dream sequences between Cruise and Boutella had me flashing back to Dawn of Justice, and that’s not a good thing.
In M99, there are two sidekicks: John Hannah as Johnathan and Kevin J. O’Connor as Beni. Both are greedy and underhanded, but one is just a little nicer than the other. And both are pretty funny. In M17 we get a poorly used Jake Johnson who is kind of an amalgam of both, but is way less funny than he should have been. (Honestly, he was the best part of Jurassic World, wasn’t he?)
In M99 we get a glimpse into a secret society of people dedicated to protecting the world from evil, personified in Oded Fehr and Erick Avari. They get to be the ones to say to the heroes “You done messed up.” In M17 that role is filled by Russell Crowe as the Nick Fury of this universe, Henry Jekyll. Personally, I loved him. I even loved the weird diversion of Hyde taking over and tossing Tom Cruise around the room for a while. This is the one place I think this version of the film wins out.
This is where M17 falls down in a major way. This is a film about an ancient mummified creature causing havoc in the modern world. It’s not supposed to be gritty and dark. They leaned really heavily into the horror aspects. That made for some great imagery. (I loved the version of Ahmanet hobbling around the church early on.) But trying to splice that into a big action movie (with plane crashes and gun play) left the film an unmanageable mess. M99 knew what it was about–fun. There’s a very similar scene in both films, where a character is about to be sacrificed on an altar surrounded by mummies. This leads to a big fight sequence. The M17 version is probably more technically proficient, but it’s not fun. That sequence in M99 is rousing and leaves you happy to have spent your hard-earned money on a movie ticket.
M17 isn’t a terrible film. It’s just amazingly lackluster. I don’t think it’s going to be remember unfondly. I think it’s going to be forgotten. I don’t know if that’s better or worse than having a Battlefield Earth level disaster, but it’s disappointing nonetheless.