Over the years, Tom Cruise has been many things but he’s almost never been marginalized — not in one of his own movies. Oh, he’s played supporting parts and done cameos here and there, but even in those smaller roles (in films such as Tropic Thunder or Rock of Ages), he carries something of the Cruise persona: You can see what in the project has interested him, even if he’s pointedly playing against type. That's what's missing in his latest. Maybe this only jumps out at those of us who came of age during the Golden Age of the Cruiser — when the supernova of his stardom was an inescapable cultural fact — but as far as I can tell, The Mummy is the first Cruise-starring picture in decades in which his part seems as if it could have been played by anybody. It could be Steve Zahn up there. Or Kenan Thompson. Or, hell, Brendan Fraser.
That wouldn’t be a problem if the movie surrounding Cruise were in any way worth it. But alas, The Mummy turns out to be a drab, nonsensical affair that squanders its potential for humor, atmosphere and sweep – qualities that the much-maligned, Fraser-starring 1999 Mummy had in droves. In this one, Cruise plays Sgt. Nick Morton, a treasure-hunting U.S. soldier in Iraq who, alongside beautiful archaeologist Dr. Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), comes across the ancient Egyptian tomb of Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), a princess who once made a pact with Set, the god of death, in an attempt to gain power. (Yes, this Egyptian tomb is buried in Iraq. Don’t worry, the film has an explanation for that. Sort of.)
Unleashed, Ahmanet starts bringing down planes with sandstorms and flocks of birds, and sucking the life out of unsuspecting bystanders and enlisting their rotting (but still quite active) carcasses into her army of the undead. She also starts haunting Nick’s visions, having selected him as her Chosen One — the man whom she will stab with an ancient dagger and thus bring about the human manifestation of Set.
There’s an idea here, and it might even be a good one: Tom Cruise trying to remain a good guy while struggling against the mental hold of the evil, seductive Ahmanet. It’s a conceit that could play to Cruise’s strengths: the narcissism of his characters, their cocky bluster and charming opportunism. Unfortunately, as directed by Alex Kurtzman and written by a platoon of screenwriters (including Cruise’s most recent Mission: Impossible collaborator, Christopher McQuarrie), the film fails to turn any of this into a compelling cinematic throughline. This Mummy plays like a wan assemblage of underdeveloped concepts.
There are some weak stabs at humor. Nick’s goofy companion Chris (Jake Johnson) dies early on but keeps coming back for some agonizing repartee. Early on, Nick is portrayed as an impulsive, adventurous rascal, but the lines fall flat, and Cruise can’t really do Harrison Ford– or Kurt Russell–style roguishness. Though I’m not sure he ever really had a chance, as he's saddled with lines like “We are not looters! We are liberators of precious antiquities!”
Later, there’s some weird back-and-forth between Nick and Jenny, as each alternates between credulity and disbelief at the situation they’ve found themselves in. First she tries to convince him the Mummy is real; then, he tries to convince her. Don’t ask: Maybe all this was supposed to make for some bubbly, pseudo-Hawksian shenanigans, but it’s so clunkily handled that it only results in confusion and tedium — which is a drag, because Cruise can do humor, and McQuarrie can write it. All this drab banter often comes during thoroughly uninspired action scenes, and the film even somehow manages to waste Boutella, the electrifying French-Algerian dancer and actress who made such an impression in Kingsman: The Secret Service and Star Trek Beyond.
As you might expect, we also get some cumbersome world-building involving Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe), who heads a secret organization that purports to seek to contain evil but seems fairly sinister in its own right. All that will presumably come into play as part of Universal’s attempt to build out its “Dark Universe” franchise of revitalized monster flicks. I’m still not convinced that this is an entirely bad idea; I’d actually love to see a straightforward Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde adaptation starring Russell Crowe. But then again, what do I know? I was once excited to see a movie called The Mummy starring Tom Cruise.