The Mummy (2017)

2017 #82
Alex Kurtzman | 110 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | USA, Japan & China / English & Ancient Egyptian | 15 / PG-13

The Mummy

As studios scramble to emulate Marvel’s shared universe success, there are some very odd ideas being thrown around. One of the least odd, really, was Universal’s Dark Universe, which intended to mix together their various famous horror properties. At first blush that sounds as forced as most of these ideas are, but back in the day they made tonnes of “Dracula Meets Frankenstein” type movies, so why not do it again today? All of these movies were to be reboots, obviously, and they arguably played it safe by beginning with a reboot of one they rebooted before — a re-reboot, if you will. The Mummy 2017-style bears no resemblance to its popular ’90s forebear, but I doubt that was anything like the ’30s version anyway, so all’s fair in love and blockbuster moviemaking.

You’ll notice the repeated use of the past tense in my opening paragraph. That’s because The Mummy flopped, both critically and commercially, and the Dark Universe plans have been thrown into doubt. (Some say it’s been definitely cancelled, but I don’t think that’s been officially confirmed.) While I wouldn’t go so far as to call that a shame, I didn’t necessarily think The Mummy was that bad. On the other hand, it’s not great either…

Tom Cruise realises he's made a terrible mistake...

This iteration of the concept sets its scene in the present day war-torn Middle East, where Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) is a mercenary who stumbles upon a hidden tomb, inside which is the well-protected coffin of an Egyptian princess (Sofia Boutella). To cut to the chase, the dead lass wakes up, and brings all her supernatural powers to bear on destroying the world… or something. At the same time, Nick seems to have developed some kind of connection to her.

However, what sticks in your mind about The Mummy is not its eponymous villain, but all the time it spends trying to establish the aforementioned shared universe. Nick eventually comes into contact with a secretive organisation headed by Dr. Henry Jekyll — a name we all know, of course, so you begin to see the connections developing. You can’t help but feel more effort has been put into setting up this element than the movie that surrounds it, which therefore feels like little more than a delivery system for Dark Universe: Part 1.

But let’s try to judge it anyway. Primarily, it’s a tonal mishmash. It’s not exciting enough to satisfy as an action movie, but not scary enough to qualify as a horror. There’s humour, but it’s poorly integrated, feeling at odds with the dark tone. This is a PG-13 movie that kinda wants to be an R, but not so much that it’ll really commit to sitting on that PG-13/R line. Whole sequences and imagery seems to have been included just to look good in the trailer. For example, a bunch of business with a sandstorm in London — in the trailer it looked like it would be some sort of end-of-the-world climax, but it’s actually just a bit of a chase scene to get characters from one location to another.

“I’m here to talk to you about the Avenger Initiative.”

Cruise isn’t given room to display his usual charm, instead wandering through the plot being told stuff and always threatening to tip over into being the villain. This movie always seemed like an odd choice for him — getting stuck into a franchise-within-a-franchise at this stage in his career — and, yeah, it remains an odd choice. Russell Crowe phones in his Nick Fury turn as Jekyll, while sidekicks Annabelle Wallis and Jake Johnson fight against the material as they struggle to make their mark. Boutella’s part makes feints at complexity, but is ultimately no deeper than you’d expect the Mummy’s role to be in a Mummy movie.

And after all that it doesn’t even end properly. It’s not even that it’s blatantly set up for a sequel (it’s not, really), but it’s clearly aware that it’s part of a shared universe and they might want some of these characters back. Well, that’s what this is all about, don’t forget — Dark Universe: Part 1.

Despite all that, there are hints of a decent movie here: the first act is fairly good, and while the humorous moments may sit oddly with the pervading tone, they’re mostly fine in themselves. But it’s too concerned with establishing a universe when it should worry about being a good yarn in its own right, meaning it fails to do either adequately.

Mummy mia, here they go again

When I started this review I was going to end up giving it a generous 3 (that’s what it’s down as in my 2017 stats therefore), but my memories of whatever I liked enough to nudge it upwards have begun to fade. The Mummy — and the Dark Universe it was meant to kick off — could’ve been something, if not great, then at least worthwhile. Shame.

2 out of 5

Monsters: Dark Continent (2014)

2015 #115
Tom Green | 119 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

Ten years after the events of Monsters (according to the blurb, anyway — there’s no mention in the film), the infected zones have spread worldwide. Keen to quell the spread of the aliens, America have decided to do what they do best: bomb them all to hell, wherever they may be. In the Middle East, the destruction of lives and property — by both the monsters and US bombs — has led to insurgents fighting back against US troops, while the campaign against the monsters continues with little success.

In case it’s not apparent, this sequel to Gareth Edwards’ low-budget sci-fi indie-romance takes things in a completely different direction: we follow a troop of soldier mates (primarily Parkes, played by Sam Keeley — you can tell he’s the lead because he gets to deliver the sub-Apocalypse Now voiceover narration; but also other young British actors like Joe Dempsie (of Skins and Game of Thrones) and Kyle Soller (of Poldark)) as they’re shipped off for their first tour in Nonspecificstan, where they’re under the command of hardened vet Frater (Johnny Harris). The guys’ macho posturing is soon undercut by the realities of a combat zone, especially when they’re dispatched to rescue four soldiers left behind deep in the infected zone — or the IZ, as they of course call it.

For its genre-shifting pains, Dark Continent received exceptionally poor reviews: “disappointing”; “uncompromisingly boring and pointless”; “a clichéd macho fantasy”; “monstrously bad”; even “the worst sequel of the decade.” Oh dear. At the same time, respected genre expert Kim Newman gave it 4 stars in Empire. Has too much time spent with cheap DTV crap for his regular Empire column warped his perspective? (Radio Times also gave it 4 stars, but their film section disappeared into a haze of unreliable irrelevance long ago.) So is it the unconscionable disaster of consensus, or a misunderstood success? In my opinion, it’s somewhere between the two.

Let’s start with some other reviewers’ problems. An oft-cited one is the initial moral repugnance of the characters, but is it a valid criticism to say a movie about a bunch of macho dicks presents its characters as macho dicks? Because let’s not be kidding ourselves, the American military is not full of Guardian-reading lefties; it’s full of vulgar, unreconstructed young Blokes… like these fellas. Now, I’m sure I’m generalising — I’m sure they can’t all be like this — but I can believe plenty of them are. No doubt elements of their behaviour are more “macho fantasy” than reality (a hookers and coke party the night before shipping out?), but the fundamentals of their attitude are plausible.

If the film glamourised this we might be in trouble, but I don’t think it does. The aforementioned party looks scuzzy rather than fun, though I suppose some might disagree. More pertinently, the “war is hell” theme hits home pretty fast, and these posturing wannabes are torn apart by the realities of combat — in some cases, literally. Cue karmic punishment and/or a patch of soul searching and personality restructuring. This arc — a war zone taking a bunch of full-of-themselves oh-so-macho kids, then chewing them up and spitting them out — may be a little obvious, even cliché, but at least it does it. Anyone who thinks the film is glorifying their “macho fantasy” lifestyle has judged the film solely on its first act.

Perhaps the film isn’t clear enough on this point. Later, it does again flirt with values one might find inaccurate: Two survivors, hiding out for the night, talk about home. One recalls how, last time he was back, his daughter looked scared of him. The other asks why he doesn’t just stay home with his little girl? The first says he came to the IZ to fight to keep her safe. The other asks if he thinks they’re doing that? And just as it looks like we’re about to get a truthful, if obvious, moment where the characters admit that, no, this war is utterly pointless and has absolutely nothing to do with America or keeping Americans safe, the first guy answers, “yes, I do.” Really? Really?! At that moment it just feels queasily like right-wing propaganda, especially as the two characters in question have been positioned as our de facto heroes.

But stick with it for the final act and that character goes off the reservation. Again, Dark Continent presents us with a perspective distasteful to the politics of film critics (and me too — I’m not entirely absenting myself here), but then later shows that it doesn’t support that point of view after all. Now, I’m not making a case for this being a Clever Movie — the points it makes are nothing new, and they’re made in a form and through character arcs that are intensely familiar, so I can see justification for those criticisms (and such criticisms have been made). However, labelling it a testosterone-drenched war-is-fun propaganda piece for emotionally/socially underdeveloped males is somewhat unjust.

In a related argument, some have accused the film of going too far, glorifying things that deserve none. Partly this stems from reading the film as being pro the experience it conveys, which — as if I haven’t made it clear already — I think is a false reading. Early on, before they ship out, our ‘heroes’ attend an illegal dog fight that sets a pit bull against a dog-sized monster. It does not go well. There is maybe a little too much graphic detail at points. Even these distasteful characters don’t enjoy the ‘spectacle’, though; indeed, our main point of identification (Parkes, with his voiceover) looks away for most of the fight and is the most disturbed by it after, too. It’s a horrible scene, but it’s meant to be horrible. The counterargument goes that it’s unnecessary — no one in real life is having dogs fight alien monsters, so where’s the benefit to putting it on screen?

Later, in the war zone, there are more horrific situations and imagery that will certainly test your perspective. For example, the guys come across a school bus that was caught in an attack on some monsters. The bus is full of dead children, but our guys need to search it for water nonetheless. Is this unflinching in its realism of the brutality of war, or a step too far and just sick? Perhaps the sci-fi context again undermines the movie, because you can’t apply the “this is really happening” argument when there are giant monsters involved. But if the giant monsters are a MacGuffin to reflect real, current conflicts, then does this become something that is happening? Perhaps it’s a circular argument.

A more clearly accurate criticism concerns the presence of the titular monsters… or, rather, the lack of them. Far from being the film’s raison d’être, they are instead its MacGuffin. In reality, Dark Continent is just a Middle East war movie with some creatures adding a little flavour. Remove them completely and the entire plot would function just fine. That’s not a rash generalisation, I’ve thought it through: there’s nothing in this movie that couldn’t occur by setting it in Iraq or Afghanistan during their recent real-world occupations, and occasionally replacing the alien monsters with (depending on context) an IED or some natural wonder. Now, I’m sure this is part of the point — it’s an incredibly thinly-veiled analogy for the real Middle Eastern conflicts. But that veil is too thin. Anyone coming here for monster action will be largely disappointed, and anyone expecting an allusionary sci-fi commentary on American foreign policy will just find a commentary on American foreign policy.

Dark Continent is the debut feature of director (and, here, co-writer) Tom Green, who previously helmed half-a-dozen episodes of E4’s excellent “superheroes with ASBOs” drama Misfits and a three-part BBC One thriller that seems to be as forgettable as most three-part BBC One thrillers. Famously, the original Monsters was Gareth Edwards’ first film too: he wrote, directed, designed, shot, and did all the CGI for it single-handed, for $500,000. On the back of it, he was immediately given the keys to a $160 million Godzilla reboot and the first-ever live-action Star Wars spin-off movie (whose full title seems to change monthly, but is currently Rogue One: A Star Wars Story). Will Green be so fortunate? All those reviews suggest not.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think Green does a bad job. The film is too long — tightening up the first and last 40-or-so minutes, to bring the total length down towards the original film’s 94 minutes, would’ve been beneficial; and that pointless wannabe-Apocalypse Now voiceover, which comes and goes before disappearing entirely, should’ve been scrapped in post (if not sooner) — but, otherwise, I think he’s produced a well-made film. It’s also prettily shot by DP Christopher Ross, making great use of location shooting in Jordan to create an authentic and beautiful desert landscape. Some of the battle sequences are enmeshed in rote hyper-grainy ShakyCam, but you can’t have everything. That’s backed up with excellent CGI. Not only does it place the various monsters convincingly in the landscape but, occasionally, the pairing of the classy photography and well-realised graphics make for something aesthetically beguiling.

I do think Dark Continent is better than most reviews give it credit for, but it’s not exactly a movie of the greatest or most original insight, and — their added visual interest aside — it didn’t need to be a Monsters movie. Indeed, if it had just been a straight Middle East war movie, perhaps some critics would’ve been kinder, because at least they would’ve known what they were getting. If you liked the first film then there’s absolutely no guarantee you’ll enjoy this — it’s not the same kind of film at all — but the worst sequel of the decade? Not even close.

3 out of 5

Monsters: Dark Continent is released on UK DVD, Blu-ray and VOD today.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

2015 #76
Matthew Vaughn | 129 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15* / R

Kingsman: The Secret ServiceThe team behind Kick-Ass bring that same reverent irreverence to the spy genre in this comedy-action-thriller that aims to bring the fun of ’60s/’70s spy-fi back to a genre that’s become oh so serious.

Developed alongside the Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons comic book The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn’s film casts Colin Firth as Harry Hart, an agent for an independent intelligence operation, Kingsman, who recruits council estate kid Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the son of a fallen comrade, into the group’s elite training programme. As Eggsy battles tough training challenges and the snobbery of his Oxbridge-sourced competitors, Harry investigates suspicious tech mogul Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is secretly kidnapping people of importance and publicly giving away free SIM cards to everyone on the planet, but for what nefarious purpose?

There are several things going on in Kingsman that make it a uniquely entertaining proposition, especially in the current blockbuster climate. Part of the setup is “My Fair Lady with gentlemen spies”, as chavvy Eggsy is reshaped to be an old-fashioned besuited gent, inspired by the story of how Dr. No director Terence Young took a rough young Scottish chap called Sean Connery under his wing and taught him how to dress and behave as a gentlemen in preparation for his star-making role as the original superspy. It’s one of those ideas that you wonder why no one thought of developing into a fiction sooner. It could have come across as datedly classist, but Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman nail it as a 21st Century character arc: being a gentlemen is not about speaking correctly or lording it over the lower classes, but about a universal level of good behaviour, politeness, and doing the right thing. It successfully and acutely dodges any potential accusations of classism.

Classy mealAn even bigger part of the film’s triumph, and what likely led it to over $400 million worldwide in spite of its higher-than-PG-13 classifications (it’s Vaughn’s highest-grossing film to date, incidentally; even more so than his X-Men instalment), is that it takes the ever-popular James Bond formula and brings it up to date. However much you might love Casino Royale and Skyfall (and I do), the Bourne influence is undeniable. They’re not Bond movies in the same mould as the Connery and Moore movies that established the franchise’s enduring popularity around the globe; they’re modern thrillers, faithful in their way to Ian Fleming’s creation, but also zeitgeisty. Vaughn and co have looked at the DNA of those ’60s and ’70s Bond classics and given them a fresh lick of paint. So we have just-beyond-possible gadgets, a megalomaniacal supervillain, complete with epic mountain base, his own personal army, a physical tic, a uniquely-gifted almost-superhuman henchwoman, and a tongue-in-cheek tone that isn’t all-out spoof but lets you know no one believes any of this could actually happen and that’s OK.

Despite the overall tone of modern blockbusters, I don’t think the appetite for movies like this ever went away; or if it did, it quite quickly made a resurgence: a similar itch has been scratched in recent years by superhero movies, especially the Marvel ones. Audiences — or, perhaps, studio execs — seem currently more ready to accept outlandish action sequences, melodramatic stakes, and an occasionally-humorous tone if they were dressed up in colourful suits and pitched in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy, A little swimrather than the supposed real-world universe of spy movies. What the worldwide success of Kingsman proves is that audiences don’t need the set-dressing of superpowers to accept an action movie that’s less than deadly serious. It’s a place I don’t think the Bond movies could go anymore — not without accusations of returning to the disliked Moore or late-Brosnan films — but it’s one many people clearly like, and Kingsman fulfils it.

Another clever move by Vaughn and co was to aim it at adults. Every blockbuster is PG-13 these days to keep the box office high, but Kingsman shows you can cut loose and still make good money. By specifically setting out to make an R-rated version of the classic Bond formula, everything gets ramped up to 11. On the one hand, that earns the controversy of That Joke in the final act (as Vaughn has said, not wrongly, it’s a variation on the classic Bond film finale; Mark Strong’s Merlin even closes his videoscreen, Q-style), but on the other it allows for crazed action sequences. The (faked-)single-take church massacre has to be seen to be believed; a highly-choreographed orgy of violence that is a marvellous assault on the senses, demonstrating the benefits of clear camerawork and highly-trained professional stunt- and effects-people over fast-cut close-up ShakyCam handwavery. Later on, a certain sequence set to Land of Hope and Glory would be inconceivable in any other movie. Things like this perfectly demonstrate why the world needs these less-than-serious kinds of film: they let creativity loose, crafting moments and sequences that are exciting, funny, unique, and memorable.

The first rule of Fight Church...Criticisms of the film tend to pan out to nought, in my opinion. Is there too much violence? There’s a lot, certainly, but part of the point of that church sequence (for instance) is just how long it goes on. Other excellent action sequences (the pub fight you might’ve seen in clips; the car chase in reverse gear; the skydiving) aren’t predicated on killing. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson’s baseball-capped lisping billionaire is a perfect modern riff on the traditional Bond villain, not some kind of attack on Americans or people with speech impediments. Some have even attempted a political reading of the film, arguing it’s fundamentally conservative and right-wing because the villain is an environmentalist. Again, I don’t think the film really supports such an interpretation. In fact, I think it’s completely apolitical — just like its titular organisation, in fact — and such perspectives are being entirely read into it by the kind of people who read too much of this kind of thing into everything.

If there’s any fault, it’s perhaps in an overabundance of ideas. One fewer training sequence might’ve been better — but then, which would you lose? Based on the trailer, some scenes were cut as it is (sadly there’s no deleted scenes section on the Blu-ray), and the film doesn’t really outstay its welcome. For me, it wasn’t as balls-to-the-wall revolutionary as Kick-Ass and, when we have actually had lighter-toned action films in the past few years, it doesn’t reconstruct its genre quite as much as Vaughn and Goldman’s adaptation of Stardust did for fantasy.

Secret SocietyNot everything hinges on being wall-to-wall groundbreaking, though, and Kingsman has so much to recommend it. It ticks all the requisite boxes of being exciting and funny, and some of its sequences are executed breathtakingly. The plot may move along familiar tracks — deliberately so — but it pulls out a few mysteries and surprises along the way. There’s an array of likeable performances, particularly from Firth, Egerton (sure to get a lot of work off the back of this), Jackson and Strong, and Sofia Boutella’s blade-legged henchwoman is yet another why-has-no-one-done-that great idea.

I’m more than happy for the Bond series to carry on down its current, serious-minded path, but I’m ever so glad Kingsman has come along to provide the level of pure entertainment and unabashed fun that series used to do so well. If they can keep this quality up, may there be many sequels.

5 out of 5

Kingsman: The Secret Service is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today, and the US tomorrow.

It placed 13th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

* During editing, the BBFC advised the film would receive an 18 certificate unless changes were made. The submitted version was classified 15. Normally such edits are applied globally (despite what some websites like to claim), but this has been a less clear case: vastly different running times were posted by the BBFC and their German equivalent, but Vaughn stated in an interview that nothing was cut for the UK. Now, the UK and US Blu-rays have identical running times, so it seems likely he was (unsurprisingly) telling the truth. Another “the UK version is cut!” storm in a teacup? Yessir. ^