LOW BUDGET SPUNK VERSUS BIG BUDGET FUNK: FIRST KILL versus THE MUMMY ~ What'cha Reading?

LOW BUDGET SPUNK VERSUS BIG BUDGET FUNK: FIRST KILL versus THE MUMMY

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Director Stephen C. Miller and I had a small, spirited exchange on twitter this week, where he talked up the virtues of THE MUMMY.  This I could not let pass, and when I pointed out I liked his FIRST KILL movie better, he recognized my common good sense and the seas were calm again.

This was not just grandstanding on my part. I didn’t hate THE MUMMY; in fact the parts that actually had anything to do with a mummy and hero Tom Cruise running away or towards it were okay, if not particularly inspired. My problem was Universal attempting the Marvel playbook and using the Mummy to theoretically initiate some “Dark Universe” where we’re living in a world where Mummies, Invisible Men, Frankenstein, and Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde are all terrorizing citizens in a shared universe, the excitement unfolding in various different high-profile releases. Watching THE MUMMY as its own thing, however, it is as if the filmmakers had gotten bored with their own movie (and mummy) and brought in Dr. Jekyll halfway through as a deliberate distraction.  No thanks. I have plenty of suspension of disbelief, but I had trouble witnessing Universal’s effort to stake this wobbly tent pole through the heart of Tom Cruise, the strategic aging movie star optimistically brought in to generate excitement among those who hardly remember 2004s VAN HELSING, which attempted to do much the same, to ill effect.

As a Cruise star-vehicle, it starts off OK, with Cruise playing a ne’er do well rascal a la EDGE OF TOMORROW, the kind of guy who calls in military air strikes from the U.S. just to get him some cover while he’s stealing ancient treasures from the Egyptians currently entombed in Iraq (huh?).  Cruise does this well enough, as the last decade he’s used some of the added gravity he has gained just from simple aging to bring a bit more authority to his Colgate-smile hyper-proactive protagonists; he’s been a dependable deliverer of above average Hollywood genre entertainment in recent years.  While I miss the heady days of JERRY MAGUIRE and MAGNOLIA, the 21st century OBLIVION, JACK REACHER, THE EDGE OF TOMORROW and his MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE films starting with III (when he yanked them away from the auteurs) have all delivered the goods and then some.

THE MUMMYBut THE MUMMY doesn’t begin to know what it’s about; it feels not so much as filmmaking by committee, but filmmaking by shift-workers.  Perfectly adequate and thought-out sequences are followed by sequences serving no purpose at all, well-shot action sequences are followed by rote (if expensive) action sequences, and impressive special effects are followed by mediocre ones. The elongated mid-film sequence letting us know just what Dr. Jekyll, played adequately by Russell Crowe, is up to, deadens the picture because nobody came to THE MUMMY to find 45 minutes in the film isn’t about the mummy. It’s about Universal’s pretentious “Dark Universe” variation on GHOSTBUSTERS run by Dr. Jekyll, except he turns into Mr. Hyde long enough to try to beat the crap out of Cruise.  None of this relates to the basic thrust of the film and none of it raises my adrenaline, only my hackles. Listening to the Blu-ray commentary by the director Alex Kurtzman alongside some actors (not Cruise) only confirmed my suspicions. It seems most of the picture was reshot and reshaped after test screenings, or scenes were shot with actors such as the lovely Annabel Wallis offering several different reactions to unseen terrors so that the powers that be (and seemingly not necessarily Kurtzman himself) could decide after the fact if THE MUMMY was a horror film, action film, action comedy, horror comedy, or Tom Cruise vehicle.  Money was so copious that even the cobblestones in a street and dreadlocks in the Mummy’s hair were CGI’d in; common filmmaking sense appears to have been in short supply.  Kurtzman, Wallis, et al come off like reasonable, decent people, just trying to get this runaway train into the station with as few fatalities as possible.

As for Stephen C. Miller’s FIRST KILL, about a father (Hayden Christensen) and son matching wits with bank robbers and a surly local sheriff played by a mournful Bruce Willis, its aim is lower, but more identifiably human, and it hits its targets. Grindstone, the production company, is the antithesis of Universal.  No CGI cobblestones here, Grindestone apparently likes to see just how much it can irritate its poor filmmakers by giving them unreasonable shooting schedules and then surprising them with last minute budget cuts.  Director Miller has made 4 films with them so far (this, MARAUDERS, ARSENAL and EXTRACTION), and to his credit all are fast-paced and slickly shot by he and cinematographer Brandon Cox. On the kind of schedule that was barely adequate for Jim Wynorski to bring in one of his cheap-looking stock footage extravaganzas, Miller brings in theatrical-looking releases, with some fancy drone shots and name actors (Willis in three, Nic Cage and John Cusack in the other) who give competent if not necessarily inspired performances.  FIRST KILL is, promisingly, the best of his four Grindstone action films, as the others generally had nifty pulp premises but then relied too much on repetitive shaky-cam foot chases and ultra-violent machine gun fights, which is understandable enough as a 12-day shoot doesn’t allow for much dramatic nuance.  But KILL remains coherent and involving throughout, effectively using exterior locations much more than some of the previous films, and actually creating a coherent and involving plot that has some pleasing twists and turns toward the end.  KILL seems to be getting slammed in some quarters, but I always appreciate perspiration over money-burning.  I felt I witnessed some honest citizens working off the beaten track in Grandville Ohio to bring their A-game to a B-project, always more pleasing than studios throwing money at bad ideas hoping to beat viewers into submission. On his commentary Miller talks about having to choose which sequences to actually slow down and take time on, and he made smart choices.

Whatever its strengths and limitations, sometimes low-budget filmmaking communicates with us directly,  while overproduced stuff like THE MUMMY feels like a memo sent to your desk from an unseen overlord ten stories up.I can’t say FIRST KILL will win any awards, but I can say I’d be happy with Miller and Cox getting even a 30-day shoot and seeing what they can come up with. Hopefully it won’t be CGI cobblestones.

 

 

About Author

James Kenney reviews film for What’cha Reading? and is an editor and film reviewer at QueensFreePress. He writes fiction for Hooked, an iPad application featured on TechCrunch, Fast Company, Business Insider and CNNMoney, won a New York Foundation of the Arts fellowship for his screenplay Secret Vienna, and has a pilot, The Whip, in development at Spike TV. He is an English Lecturer at Queensborough Community College as well as Bronx Community College, and lives in Queens New York with his wife and two children. You can follow James on twitter @jfkenney and check out more of his reviews on http://www.queensfreepress.com/author/jkenney/

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