It’s Gonna Be Mumm-May: ‘The Mummy’ (2017)

I could apologize for the title of this column, but I’m not going to, because I’m not sorry. Call it fate, call it madness, call it whatever you like, but the constant “It’s gonna be May” jokes that arise annually at the end of every April now have pushed me – weeks later – to finally pull the trigger on an idea that’s been brewing: an annual look at mummy movies! From here on out, for as long as this site exists, I shall become your Justin Tomb-berlake (not sorry for that either) every May as I occasionally pontificate upon the beat of cloth-wrapped feet. So as this May wraps up, let’s unwrap a few Mumm-Mays! (Again – I’m not sorry!)

It seems fitting to kick off a mummy mumble with a Universal film, but it’d be a bit too easy to just immediately address Karl Freund’s 1932 classic The Mummy or even Stephen Sommers’ 1999 rollicking modern adventure entry, The Mummy. Those will be covered within this column in time, but for now, let’s look at the oft-maligned 2017 entry in the Universal Mummy pantheon.

For the bulk of the 2010s, the powers at be within Universal attempted to launch new iterations of the classic Universal Monsters. The first film out of the gate, Joe Johnston’s The Wolfman (2010), was a period piece throwback to classic Universal and Hammer monster movies. When that didn’t take off, they tried the historical epic approach with 2014’s Dracula Untold. When that didn’t work, they skewed even more towards action, while also bringing things into modern times with 2017’s The Mummy.

The idea was to craft a new Marvel-style cinematic universe of action-tinged Universal Monster movies, all centered around movie stars* as either the titular creatures or their hunters. Needless to say, it didn’t pan out for them, but that’s how you end up with Tom Cruise running away from mummies.

Cruise plays an against-type adventurous cad of an army sergeant named Nick Morton, who talks his friend Corp. Chris Vail (Jake Johnson) into going AWOL to loot a supposed tomb within the Iraqi desert. After some action hijinks, sure enough, they find said tomb. It houses the body of the cursed Princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella). Why was an Egyptian princess buried far away in what would become Iraq? Because she was very, very naughty.

Once removed from her earthly prison, it’s not long before Ahmanet is shambling about against and she has her sights set on Nick for a diabolical purpose. If you’re thinking “She wants to rule as an undying queen after performing an infernal ritual,” then congratulations, you are correct! To stop her, Nick must depend on an archaeologist (Annabelle Wallis) and a secret monster-fighting organization called Prodigium, who is represented here by one of it’s leaders: Dr. Henry Jekyll (Russell Crowe).

Yes, that Dr. Jekyll. And yes, Russell Crowe does indeed Hyde-out during one setpiece mid-film. This all sounds a bit overcomplicated and it very much is. You’ve got an in-depth backstory for who Ahmanet is and what her motivations are. You have Nick’s arc as an aging army sergeant who keeps doing dumb shit that prevents him from ever advancing in his military career. You have an archaeologist who works for Prodigium, but is mostly just interested in the ancient mysteries of the world. And then you have said monster-hunting organization being run by a monster himself. That’s a whole lot and I haven’t even gotten around to mentioning the ghost, the demon god, or the Templar Knight zombies that are also present in the film.

If you look below, you’ll see that there were five credited writers on this movie and likely a few more that we don’t even know about. It shows. The story is stuffed to the gills(man) and the tone is all over the place. As are the characterizations. Motivations for our leads shift from scene to scene and not in an organic way. The end result is an unwieldy, messy blockbuster that tries to please everyone and ends up falling way short of that goal. Unfortunately, that tends to be what happens when there are too many cooks in the kitchen.

Cruise’s Nick Morton goes through an arc that can best be described as a weird mix of An American Werewolf in London and Army of Darkness. Nick is meant to be this carefree, philandering, selfish soldier who is constantly conning those around him. Sometimes that involves seducing an archaeologist so he can still a map to a tomb. Sometimes involves him duping his best friend into risking military prison for fortune and glory. Sometimes it involves him attempting to slink his way out of a fate involving eternal damnation. He never thinks out his actions until after the fact, which means he’s constantly out of his depth and running from trouble. None of which is very Tom Cruise.

While I think a younger Tom could have pulled this role off, the man has been settled into an extra-competent man-of-action mode for so long now that he doesn’t fit this type of role anymore. He’s not terrible as Nick. It’s a perfectly serviceable performance. That said, as written, this is a part better suited for the likes of Bradley Cooper or (20 years ago) Bruce Campbell. It frankly astounds me a bit that Nick wasn’t rewritten to better suit modern Cruise’s strengths as a performer. Had the adventurous idiot aspects been dumped in favor of an “Ethan Hunt, but nothing goes right” angle, the Mummy: Impossible tone could still have been retained. Unfortunately, that would have required a stronger filmmaking team with a more concise vision backing it and Neil Jordan’s Interview with the Vampire (Cruise’s last horror outing) this is not.

Enough with the dogpiling, however, because despite its flaws, I do not hate this movie. In fact, I rather enjoy it and it’s messiness is part of why I do. There’s an accidental Eurohorror kitchen sink vibe to the whole thing that I find appealing. I say accidental because there’s no way that one screenwriter (or even just two) could turn in a script that involves an undead mummy princess, an evil god, a harbinger ghost, a horde of shuffling mummies, a host of rotting Templars, and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde and have that be greenlit by a major Hollywood studio to the tune of $200 million. It just wouldn’t happen. While that level of genre insanity is par for the course when it comes to pre-’80s low budget genre fare from Italy, Spain, and Mexico, you can only reach such heights of ludicrousness in modern times by sliding down that dopey slope gradually through numerous rewrites done by many different writers.

I don’t begrudge those who deeply dislike this film. I know that I’m in the minority here. I’m not THAT crazy. But I also know that it’s impossible for me to hate a mummy movie where it takes a break in Act 2 to allow Rusty Crowe to transform from a polite & respectable Henry Jekyll into a violent Cockney-spewing Edward Hyde as he beats the crap out of Tom Cruise. Again, this is a level of ludicrousness that is unheard of and I can’t NOT enjoy it. On top of that, it’s also fun to see Star Trek Beyond and Kingsman: The Secret Service star Sofia Boutella as a vicious, unapologetic female mummy.

Is the 2017 iteration of The Mummy a good movie? No. Am I sad that I didn’t get a sequel where Tom Cruise gets to use his newfound mummy powers – yes, I just typed “mummy powers” – to save the world from some other threat? Not really. Am I sad that it didn’t kick off the entire Dark Universe slate of films like it was intended to? Also no. Do I still revisit the film from time to time for all of the dumb fun it contains? Yes.

Stop judging me. I like mummy movies! And I’ll be back with more Mumm-May goodness (and badness) as the final days of the month play out.

The Mummy is an action horror film and the tenth installment in Universal’s The Mummy franchise. It was directed by Alex Kurtzman, from a screenplay by David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman, Jon Spaihts, and Jenny Lumet. The film was produced by Alex Kurtzman, Chris Morgan, Sean Daniel, Genevieve Hofmeyr, and Sarah Bradshaw. It stars Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Russell Crowe, Jake Johnson, Marwan Kenzari, Courtney B. Vance, Selva Rasalingam, and Javier Botet.

* – Universal’s big press release for it remains hilarious, as it was very much a cart before the horse scenario. Johnny Depp was announced as The Invisible Man. Javier Bardem and Angelina Jolie were on deck to play Frankenstein’s Monster and The Bride. Scarlett Johansson was in talks to play the woman who is the object of the Creature from the Black Lagoon’s affection. Dwayne Johnson was rumored to play some new (oversized) version of The Wolf Man. None of these movies were made and I suspect we’re all the better for it.

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