The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) / Action-Fantasy
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for violence and some scary images
Running time: 112 min.
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Maria Bello, Jet Li, Luke Ford, Michelle Yeoh, John Hannah, Isabella Leong, Anthony Wong, Russell Wong, Liam Cunningham
Director: Rob Cohen
Screenplay: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar
Director Rob Cohen substitutes for the writer-director creative force behind The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, Stephen Sommers, with a visually impressive but hollow adventure that epitomizes the Shakespearean phrase, "Full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." Over 2,000 years ago, merciless Chinese emperor Han (Li, The Forbidden Kingdom) received his comeuppance at the hands of a goodly sorceress, Zi Juan (Yeoh, Sunshine), who he tried to double cross in his attempt to increase his formidable power through immortality. Entombed as a statue along with his band of mighty warriors, all figures of terracotta, it isn't until the 1940s that Han would be freed from his state of suspended animation to resume his aborted quest for world domination once more. Renown adventurers Rick O'Connell (Fraser, Journey to the Center of the Earth) and his wife Evelyn (Bello, Payback) are called out of retirement to China in order to safely see to the delivery of a valuable sacred diamond, the Eye of Shangri-La, when all Hell breaks loose, leaving them in the wake of a powerful undead force the likes of which the world has never known. Along with their now grown-up son Alex (Ford, "McLeod's Daughters"), who just happens to be there in an archeological dig, and tagalong brother to Evelyn, Jonathan (Hannah, The Last Legion), who just happens to run a nightclub in Shanghai, they seek to help the ageless sorceress Zi Juan and her daughter Lin (Leong, Dragon Heat) defeat Han before he can amass his animated army and begin his mission to become the most powerful force on Earth.
Although Sommers is out as director (he gets a producer credit), his formula stays in. Mix mild humor, special effects, grandiose sets, and a great deal of pyrotechnics, and keep things moving fast enough for us not to get restless that we don't have much of a story to follow. While that might just be enough for viewers who don't mind a mindless popcorn movie from time to time, it sure doesn't make this third installment a compelling, or even interesting watch. It's a bit of a shame, as one could have imagined taking the premise of the first film and expanding the characters or building up the story enough so that its sequels might even rival the original.
While most sequels tend to overdo what made the first film enjoyable to the point where the formula is out of whack, its sequels have gone the opposite direction, with progressively less scares (I don't think there is a single moment in Tomb that I would consider frightening), less humor, and less character screen time. Filling up the screen is more and more spectacle, piling on a ceaseless array of special effects pieces, gargantuan sets that crumble down before our eyes, and plenty of gunfire and explosives going off repeatedly. All one can do is vacantly stare at the screen, hypnotically entranced by the sights and sounds gone amok, as the well of ideas had run dry shortly after the concept of the film had been established.
Rachel Weisz, who played Evelyn in the first two films, declined to make her third, as the script was not to her liking. Maria Bello takes the role, mimicking Weisz's inflections and hair color, though her character doesn't always appear to be the same. While she provides ample eye candy, she doesn't provide Weisz's ability to deliver on the prerequisite naturally witty repartee with Fraser. She is a few years older than Weisz, which I suppose works a bit better for what screenwriters Gough and Millar, who gave us "cinematic treasures" like Herbie Fully Loaded and Showtime, are trying to do, though still falls short. I'm not a mathematician, but something seems a bit off here in terms of age. The first film had been set in 1921, and though its stars were in their late-20s at the time. I'm not sure what the age of their characters had been supposed to be, but if one were to assume a liberal one for the first film, say, 22 or so, that would mean that Rick and Evy are supposed to be pushing 50 in this third film set in 1947. Fraser and Bello were not oly a good decade younger than the age they are supposed to be playing, they look at least good five years younger than their actual age of 39 and 40. That, and given the "mileage" that they both have experienced in their storied travels, seems a bit unreasonable to believe. Presumably, they were pushed forward in order to include the possibility of another spin-off series with their son Alex, now grown up in his early 20s. Oddly, Alex has lost that thick British accent, replaced by an organic American one, from when we first saw him as a boy of eight in The Mummy Returns (interestingly, the actor that portrays Alex is neither Brit nor Yank -- Ford is an Aussie).
Although co-starring the immense physical talents of Li and Yeoh, as well as Hong Kong fave Anthony Wong (The Painted Veil, Initial D), there aren't any fight scenes one can point to that are worth the price of admission. In fact, despite the marketing, there isn't all that much kung fu at all, which is not only strange given the stars and setting, but the fact that it had been employed so much in anachronistic fashion in The Mummy Returns would have led us to believe that this would be an explosive martial arts epic with a sky's-the-limit budget for special effects. Unfortunately, Rob Cohen (Stealth, xXx) isn't really a director interested in brilliant choreography so much as wanton carnage, so many of the fight scenes feature glass breaking, walls crumbling, and centuries-old structures falling down all around.
Yetis (aka Abominable Snowmen) even make an appearance and get to tussle, but Cohen doesn't bother setting us up for the fact that such creatures can exist independent of magic, and there isn't much majesty or awe in seeing these mythical creatures do battle. It's just one of many plot developments that appear out of nowhere, as the movie appears to make up its own rules as it goes along, throwing in additional obstacles whenever necessary to keep its scant storyline progressing to the next action extravaganza. By the time Han develops the ability to shape-shift into creatures of his own imagination, we've already accepted that Cohen's film will throw in special effects and new things to destroy just because he feels there needs to be more, then they get edited too quickly to tell just what's going on, then go on far too long to maintain any sense of interest.
I remarked in my review of The Mummy Returns that Sommers made one mistake that he didn't in the first film, which led to it being less enjoyable, and that is the introduction of serious moments. I didn't consider The Mummy to be a good film, but at least I knew that it was only meant to be a fun throwback to simpler pleasures. The second film had a main character nearly die, as does this film, and even has a moment when Rick has a prolonged reflective scene whereby he discusses his need to be a good father to Alex. Characters this flat and stereotypical should never be shown to have moments of poignancy or sorrow, as they have only been set up to deliver punch lines when we need a laugh or action when we need a scuffle. To care one whit about the state of their marriage or of their philosophies on parenting just doesn't belong in what's been nothing but a jocular series of senselessly stupid action movies.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a purely commercial vehicle that mystifyingly targets a demographic that only represented a fraction of the existing fan base. Action-heads do get plenty of destruction to admire, but those tuning in for the snarky wit, the occasional homage, and the swashbuckling stunts can only be left wondering just why a franchise with such a low threshold to cross for entertainment can't seem to come close to getting it right, even when given all of the money, star power and time to throw together something to at least approximate the knowing mediocrity of the original. I think somewhere along the line, the creative minds behind the films mistook box office receipts as a sign of quality filmmaking, thinking audiences must obviously have fallen in love with these characters and are captivated by the stories. They no longer sought to make fun of the film from the inside out, which, if you think about it, provides the only moments when the films have ever been truly entertaining. As much as they try to inject funny quips into the action, I can't think of a single memorable one mere days after viewing it.
If you're going to make a loving homage to bad movies, at least show us what's fun about brainless comedic horror and trashy action-adventures. Amusement park rides should actually provide a level of thrills and chills, and they shouldn't ever slow down for moments of reflection without any justification. If they continue down this road any more, Rick won't be the only one who hates Mummies.
©2008 Vince Leo