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Who Is Tom Cruise in 2017?

If his messy monster mash ‘The Mummy’ is any indication, he’s a big Hollywood star who’s a little out of place

(Jaya Nicely)
(Jaya Nicely)

Tom Cruise can carry a movie — or hadn’t you heard. That fact seems obvious, but lately, so are Cruise’s efforts to keep proving it. Someone, somewhere must still need convincing. Otherwise, Tom, what gives? In his new movie, The Mummy, Cruise, 54, really puts himself through it. He becomes the obsession of a possessed mummy woman who, having never read He’s Just Not That Into You, winds up beating him half to death. He endures a plane crash, a truck crash, and a U.S. military airstrike; gets hunted by zombies and haunted by a ghost; survives gunfire from fanatical insurgents and wriggles his way free from a violently mad doctor in London. Beaten down, thrown around, stabbed, and concussed, he even, at multiple points, sort of dies. All in the name of a good time.

And actually, that does sound like a good time, not least because of the peculiar charm of Cruise himself, a.k.a. "The Man Who Does Too Much." There are few greater joys, in modern American blockbusters, than seeing Tom Cruise manically flail against the odds. Just three years ago, in Edge of Tomorrow, we got to watch Cruise die, die, and die again for the length of an entire movie. It was a delight. The movie itself, directed by ongoing Cruise collaborator Doug Liman, is good — but the mere idea of Cruise volunteering to let us watch him get played, on such an epic scale, is even better, like watching a slapstick comedian step on 20 rakes. We love to see Cruise get punished — and he’s apparently more than aware of that fact. We love to watch the sweat drip dangerously from his brow, to watch the jagged helicopter blade creep ever-so-near the soft meat of his neck. We love to see him being put in his place. And then we sit back, satisfied, as Cruise shakes it off, all cool, flashing that million-dollar, megawatt smile as he walks off into the next dumb, fun Tom Cruise Movie™.

What is it about this guy that makes his impending failure, or even just the hint of his annihilation, so appealing? It’s a question of persona. For American blockbusters, Cruise is — or was — a renewable energy source. So the failure of The Mummy is sort of interesting, actually, even if the movie itself isn’t at all interesting. The movie, which was directed by Alex Kurtzman and written by three kids in a trenchcoat pretending they know how to write a grown-up script, is the opening salvo of Universal’s monster movie "Dark Universe," soon to feature Frankenstein, the Bride of Frankenstein, and Javier Bardem — dark, indeed.

While it’s not so unusual to see Cruise atop an overdone franchise — he is currently filming Mission: Impossible 6, after all — The Mummy nevertheless finds the actor in a strange place. Cursed desert ruins, sure, but even more unfamiliar: He’s in the year 2017. We’re in the thick of the "How many Oscar nominees does it take to screw in a Marvel lightbulb?" era. Even Denzel’s popcorn career has moved from being a lone wolf in The Equalizer to being but one of seven — albeit, the main guy — in The Magnificent Seven. Cruise, meanwhile, has lately had sidekicks and love interests, in movies like Oblivion and, here, in The Mummy. But they’re all just passing through. He’s still trying to be a stand-alone guy. And it seems that Cruise has only just realized that he — a singular Hollywood star still trying to make singular-Hollywood-star-powered blockbusters — might be a little out of place.

The Mummy starts off on a fun-enough note. Nick Morton (Cruise) and Chris Vail (the frequently funny Jake Johnson) are American military men who spend their days thieving from 5,000-year-old Middle Eastern ruins, right ahead of the insurgents who are going out of their way to deface said history. Morton, Vail, and the archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis) come across an underground tomb that, they eventually learn, belongs to a pharaoh’s daughter named Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), a spurned princess who found her path to power thrown off course by her father’s new son. We learn through flashbacks that Ahmanet killed her father — and his new wife, and the newborn, all in a fit of possessed rage meant to last through the ages. She was trying to awaken the god of death, Set. It doesn’t quite work out that way.

Anyway, in case it wasn’t clear, stumbling upon this particular woman’s sarcophagus was a stroke of bad luck. And The Mummy’s knotty ball of a plot somewhat delightfully starts uphill, motored by the ridiculous fun of this premise, before very quickly losing its way. By the end, it seems we haven’t watched one movie so much as a handful of other movies. We’ll have met Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and seen Ahmanet assemble a small army of zombie minions by kissing men to their deaths. There’s a chance for camp humor lingering, painfully, at the edges of all this. But that’d require imagination. Even more, it’d require trying to take an original approach to the material.

More than anything, The Mummy feels like it’s late to the party, chasing trends we’ve already long grown wary of. The unbreakable superhumans Cruise usually plays in blockbusters — men like Ethan Hunt, of Mission Impossible — are no longer par for the course. And The Mummy plays out as if Cruise just realized this — as if he, and the filmmakers he’s working with, just learned of the popularity of The Walking Dead, that the biggest movies in theaters are about godlike superheroes, and that the most epic way to end a summer movie is still with a gravel-voiced older actor intoning about "the hero Gotham deserves." The Mummy is some strange brew of them all: a zombie movie, a reboot, a superhero-y franchise fuckfest, and on and on. It in fact ends with Cruise, practically a caped crusader, riding off into the desert as the voice of Russell Crowe sets us up for a sequel. It isn’t The Mummy’s first reminder that the movie is a retread of so much that came before. But it’s possibly the saddest.

We talk about Cruise, who’s famous for having an unusual degree of control over his film projects, as if he’s his own auteur — because, well, he is. Does that then mean he alone is to blame for his shittier recent movies? (Which include, by my count: Jack Reacher and its sequel; Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation; Rock of Ages; and may for you include 2013’s Oblivion, which I’ll cop to liking, if only for how well it’s made.) That isn’t to say he’s having some sort of crisis. Cruise has been in good movies; he’s been in bad movies; he’ll continue to be in good and bad movies in perpetuity, until the rising tides claim us all. But it’s strange to watch a bad Cruise blockbuster in which the actor’s charm doesn’t somehow make it all hang together, against the odds. The character he plays here doesn’t quite add up. Part of the plot hinges on his being an irredeemably bad guy — but is he really a bad guy, or is he just your average American twat? One moment he’s casually assuring Jenny he didn’t intend to save her life, as if he has little regard for her; the next he’s rescuing her out of love, or something — they had sex once and won’t shut up about it. What is the truth?

Before we go feeling too bad for Cruise, the actor: He’s rich, he’s handsome, he’s still one of Hollywood’s most powerful and profitable stars. I’m not worried for Cruise — even here, his hair looks too good for me to be able to muster up much sense of charity. I would like to know, however, where this is all going. Cruise is still one of our great Hollywood stars. You know it, I know it, he knows it. But it’d be nice if his movies could still prove us right.