To age is human, but don’t tell that to Tom Cruise, who once again tries to act like a 27-year-old (he’s actually 54) in The Mummy, a dreary corporate product designed to initiate Universal Pictures’ monster-centric “Dark Universe,” and whose plot involves the star fighting against—and (in trademark fashion) fleeing from—an undead monster that wants to…well, have sex with him. Seriously. The result is one of Cruise’s biggest big-screen blunders, a hodgepodge of action and horror clichés stitched together with plenty of CGI but little lucidity and even less inventiveness. Nonetheless, even more than its awkward world-building, its lame set pieces, or its less-than-stellar depiction of women, the real issue with Alex Kurtzman’s summer spectacle is that it functions as yet another vehicle for Cruise’s stunted adolescence. No matter what his birth certificate says, he’s the superstar who won’t grow up.
The Mummy may be the most egregious example yet of Cruise’s desire to define himself strictly in youthful action-figure terms. It plays like a transparent attempt by the actor to one-up Hollywood’s Marvel upstarts with his own interconnected movie-verse—one in which he’s paired with a woman 22 years his junior, called “a younger man” by Russell Crowe (who’s actually almost two years younger than Cruise), and performs feats of derring-do that most thirtysomethings couldn’t handle. That makes it a far from surprising project for Cruise, who’s long rebelled against father time by headlining tentpoles whose defining characteristics are his own physical toughness, death-defying nerve, and wrinkle-free good looks. There’s a reason why he routinely discusses the lengths to which he’ll go (and the personal peril he risks) to pull off his insane big-screen stunts, such as running alongside the exterior of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper (2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) or hanging from a plane as it lifts off the tarmac (2015’s Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation): they’re exploits which announce that, more than three decades after he first rose to Hollywood’s apex, Tom Cruise remains the baddest superstar on the planet.
Alas, since 2001’s Vanilla Sky, Cruise has played a human being in exactly one drama: 2007’s Lions for Lambs. Moreover, during that stretch, he’s only participated in two comedies (2008’s Tropic Thunder and a cameo in 2002’s Austin Powers in Goldmember) and one musical (2012’s Rock of Ages), all of which featured him as a larger-than-life caricature. Otherwise, he’s spent the new millennium embodying variations of a similar type: the nerves-of-steel hero whose courage, resolve and lethality allow him to overcome any and all insurmountable obstacles. While there are certainly differences between his recent roles, their cumulative effect has been to reduce his big-screen persona to something more narrow, and skin-deep. He looks the same, but he’s different. Lesser.
Which isn’t to say that this action-hero routine hasn’t reaped any rewards—2014’s Edge of Tomorrow is one of Cruise’s all-time best, the first Jack Reacher is an underrated gem, and the last two Mission: Impossible installments have been superior espionage efforts. And before that, there were his exceptional collaborations with Steven Spielberg (2002’s Minority Report, 2005’s War of the Worlds) and Michael Mann (2004’s Collateral). There’s no denying that, in the right hands and the proper vehicle, Cruise can still go toe-to-toe with anyone in the genre filmmaking arena.
But following 2001, which is also when he filed for divorce from Nicole Kidman, Cruise has abandoned any interest in the sort of dramatic work that helped first make him international cinema’s top dog. Whether that timing is a coincidence or not, that year is the demarcation line between the Cruise of The Color of Money, Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire, Magnolia and Eyes Wide Shut, and the modern Cruise of The Last Samurai, Knight and Day, Oblivion, three Mission: Impossible adventures and two Jack Reacher sagas. It’s as if, having established himself as not only a Top Gun action stud, but a charismatic actor capable of more than holding his own against the likes of Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman and Jack Nicholson, and in films by Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone, Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson, Cruise suddenly decided, at the turn of the century, to cast aside adulthood and revert back to a more one-note beat-‘em-up guise.
In the early aughts, that reversion was only moderate; Cruise at least attempted to bring some everyman gravity to his noble dad in War of the Worlds. But shortly thereafter, any motivation to dig into meaty roles—ones that would entail navigating complicated emotional or moral depths—all but vanished. Of course, in 2005, the actor’s golden-boy reputation took a severe hit when he jumped on Oprah’s couch and sparred about anti-depressants with Brooke Shields. And it was rocked further in January 2008, via the online release of the notorious Scientology tape featuring him proselytizing with wild-eyed intensity. Whether those public incidents, which exposed a measure of the genuine man behind the Hollywood image, further compelled Cruise to retreat into sunshiny, superficial He-Man-ish endeavors can only be answered, to a large extent, by the star himself. But it is clear that, whatever the cause, Cruise now uses each successive role to reinforce a particular Dorian Gray-ish vision of himself as a live-action comic book hero, all mega-watt smiles, no-nonsense grimaces, irresistible sexual magnetism and tough-guy theatrics.
That he’s a bad fit for The Mummy is partly due to the film itself, a misbegotten venture that fails to take advantage of its star’s finest qualities. And it’s likely that, in the future, Cruise will deliver more A-grade extravaganzas, be it September’s promising-looking American Made (which looks like it’ll allow him to dial the charm to eleven), or next year’s sixth Mission: Impossible—or, least encouraging of all, the embracing-the-past Top Gun: Maverick. But from all indications, what we can’t look forward to is the old Tom Cruise, the one who balanced such gung-ho undertakings with big, risky dramas helmed by the great moviemaking artists of his generation. That Tom Cruise seems to have disappeared, at least for now, and the one we’ve been left with, as awesome as he still can be, too often feels like a cartoon version of the real thing.