Mummy, The: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 08/01/08 00:00:00

"Anywhere's Better Than Here"
1 stars (Sucks)

“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” the latest in the series of action-adventure films that kicked off in 1999 with the fairly dreadful but immensely popular “The Mummy,” continued with the equally dreadful and equally popular follow-up “The Mummy Returns” and tried to spin off a second franchise with the really dreadful and not-quite-as-popular “The Scorpion King,” comes to theaters with several strikes against it, at least in my humble opinion. For one thing, I have always suspected that the popularity of the films was based not so much in their inherent quality as it was in the fact that they were essentially rip-offs of the Indiana Jones films and audiences were so starved for something that vaguely reminded them of those epics that they were perfectly happy to settle for a cut-rate version--with the actual Indiana Jones back in theaters this summer, why would anyone still want to bother with the ersatz version? For another thing, Stephen Sommers, the director of the first two films in the series, decided not to sign up for this third go-around and has been replaced by the redoubtable Rob Cohen, whose credits include the exceptionally cheesy likes of “The Skulls,” “Stealth,” “XXX” (better known as the film in which Vin Diesel ran around saving the world while clad in an enormous man-fur) and “Dragonheart,” a talking-dragon fantasy that I found so punishing and off-putting that to this day, I have never managed to get through more than its first 20 minutes before shutting it off. (I even tried putting it on when I was deadly sick and practically immobilized and I still mustered up the strength to put something else on after a few minutes.) Finally, and most significantly from my perspective, there is the sad fact that Rachel Weisz, who co-starred in the earlier films as spunky adventuress Evelyn,, decided not to take part in this installment either, which means that the chances of seeing her dressed in skimpy clothing and tied up spread-eagle on a sacrificial altar (which were easily the highlights of the previous outings) were going to be severely reduced at best.

At this point, having cited my initial qualms with the film in depth, you are probably expecting me to say that despite said qualms, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” actually turned out to be a thrilling and hugely entertaining popcorn film that is a perfect respite for the dog days of summer. You are probably thinking that I am going to claim that Rob Cohen effectively brings a new energy to the project with the go-for-broke attitude that he has demonstrated in his previous films. You may even be waiting for me to say that the combination of returning characters and new additions to the fold yields so many nifty dividends that the absence of Rachel Weisz is easily forgotten after a few minutes. Well, as it turns out, this is not that kind of review because all of those initial misgivings were fully borne out and joined by hundreds of flaws, errors and “what were they thinking?” moments that even I couldn’t have contemplated beforehand. Twice as dumb and pointless as the earlier films in the series, this is an ineptly plotted, lazily acted and shoddily produced headache of a movie that offers viewers nothing but the spectacle of a lot of people going through the motions in exchange for presumably hefty paycheck in scenes that are frequently interrupted for some of the cheesiest CGI effects to adorn a big-budget studio tent pole epic in recent memory.

As has been tradition for the series, the film opens up with a prologue set thousands of years in the past that sets up all the nonsense to follow. This time around, the focus is on Emperor Han (Jet Li), a fierce and cruel warrior whose vast armies have slaughtered those who have dared to oppose him and enslaved the survivors to construct a little totem that he likes to call the Great Wall. The only thing that he has yet to conquer, however, are the inevitable ravages of time and when he gets word that there is a witch in the vicinity who may well hold the key to eternal life, he send his most trusted friend and general off to track her down and bring her and her secrets back to him. Not only does the witch, Zi Juan, come as advertised with the power of eternal life, she also looks exactly like Michelle Yeoh and so Han decides to make her his wife. Unfortunately, she and the general have fallen in love and after receiving what he believes to be the spell for eternal life, he has the general drawn-and-quartered (or at least as drawn-and-quartered as one can get while still retaining an all-important PG-13 rating) and stabs Zi Juan for good measure. It turns out, however, that instead of ensuring that Han and his vast army will live forever, Zi Juan has instead whipped up a curse that transforms the lot of them into terra-cotta statues that are never to be revived under any circumstances--if they do, naturally, Han will become bestowed with supernatural powers that will allow him to take over the world for good.

Now that all of that is out of the way, we pick up the story in 1946 and rejoin our heroes, Rick and Evelyn O’Connell (Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello, the latter filling in for Weisz) as they try to adjust to a way of life free of adventures--she fills the time by writing books based on her past exploits (which becomes more difficult now that there are no more exploits to mine) while he passes the hours by inadvertently recreating routines that Rock Hudson would do in “Man’s Favorite Sport” (a considerable achievement when you consider that that particular film won’t be made for another 18 years). Inevitably, they are as bored with their adventure-free existence as we are at watching their adventure-free existence and when they are asked by the British government (oh yeah, it turns out that they were secret agents during World War II--you know, just like Indiana Jones) to covertly return the fabulous jewel known as the Eye of Shangri-La to its proper home in the Shanghai museum, they leap at the chance to do so. Conveniently, Shanghai is also the place where Evelyn’s shady brother (and perennial third wheel) Jonathan (John Hannah) is running an Egyptian-themed nightclub. Coincidentally, Shanghai is also where Rick and Evelyn’s now-grown son, Alex (Luke Ford), a budding archaeologist/adventurer in his own right, has just turned up with his first big find--the remains of General Han. Thanks to the machinations of a fanatical Chinese military leader (Anthony Wong), General Han is revived and begins to make his way to Shangri-La, where he will be able to get his powers fully restored, revive his still-slumbering troops and take over the world once and for all. Rick, Evelyn, Jonathan and Alex join forces to prevent this from happening and are aided in their endeavors by Lin (Isabella Leong), a spunky young warrior whose family has been charged with making sure Han stays put for centuries.

There are many problems with “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” (starting with a title so lugubrious yet forgettable that I was halfway through this review before I realized that I was calling it by a different name) but I would like to start with what I think is one of its most basic and glaring flaws--the inescapable fact that while the screenplay includes everything from yak vomit to a three-headed dragon to a trio of helpful Yeti, there isn’t a single actual mummy on display in the entire thing. Actually, the absence of a mummy isn’t necessarily a bad idea in and of itself--there were no mummies on display in “The Dark Knight” and it didn’t seem to hurt that film at all (and outside of a tie-in with a fast-food pizza franchise, that is the only point of comparison between this film and “The Dark Knight”--and I suppose that going off in a new direction is preferable to trying to come up with some contrivance that would allow for a third go-around with the mummy from the earlier films. Call me a purist or a crazy dreamer, but if a movie is going to have the word “mummy” in the title, shouldn’t it contain, you know, at least one lousy mummy somewhere along the way? Instead, we are left with a film entitled “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” and it contains the exact same number of mummies found in “Mama Mia!” a couple of weeks ago--possibly even fewer than that one, depending on whether you count Christine Baranski or not. What makes this especially aggravating is the film’s bizarre insistence that it is actually jam-packed with mummies when it so clearly isn’t--virtually every other scene feature a bit of dialogue in which someone makes reference to all the alleged mummies that they are battling or remarks about how wherever they go, mummies seem to turn up. Imagine going to a film entitled “Huge Killer Sharks” and discovering that a.) it is actually contains barracuda (Huh? What? Where?) instead of sharks and b.) that all the characters continually talk about all the huge killer sharks that they are facing.

Of course, the willingness of screenwriters Alfred Gough & Miles Millar to shorthand terra-cotta warriors, an important part of Chinese mythology, into “mummies” is only the tip of the iceberg in regards to the problems found in their screenplay, which is a mess even by the ordinarily ramshackle nature of films of this type. For one thing, the basic premise of a group of quirky people, some possessing extraordinary powers, trying to prevent an ancient army from reforming and taking over the world is more or less the same one that Universal Studios, the distributor of this film, served up only a couple of weeks ago with the infinitely superior “Hellboy II.” For another thing, this is one of the screenplays in which everything on display manages to somehow be both unfathomably complex and painfully simple-minded. For a third, there is not a single moment on display that offers viewers something that they haven’t already seen before in a much more competent form (with the possible exception of what is actually described by one character as the “yakking yak“) in other, better films. As the film progresses, it quickly becomes evident that instead of even bothering to come up with a coherent plot, Gough & Millar have decided to simply jam together as many ideas as possible, no matter how silly they may be or how little they have to do with each other, in the apparent hopes that people will be so distracted by all the noise and flash that they won’t notice just how nonsensical it really is. This is why we are suddenly greeted at a certain point by a trio of Yeti who come out of nowhere to save the good guys, beat up the bad guys and demonstrate their inexplicable knowledge of football refereeing signals. This is why General Han transforms himself into a three-headed dragon for no good reason, unless Cohen is paying some kind of twisted homage to his “Dragonheart” past. This is why Han also finds himself transforming in the final reels into some kind of vague and indistinct monster for no good reason, except perhaps to provide footage of some kind of weird creature that can be used in the trailers. As the screenplay continues to drag in random nonsense such as this, only to abandon them just as quickly, you get the sense that it has been written both by and for ADD-afflicted children who have seen way too many movies and who are determined to simply repeat their favorite parts from them, regardless of whether or not they make any sense.

While character development is usually on the low end of the totem pole in movies of this type, what passes for it here is shockingly thin and one-dimensional. Brendan Fraser gives us yet another variation on the heroic goofball persona that he has deployed in most of his other films and he seems so bored with the proceedings that he doesn’t even bother to disguise his evident disdain with the entire enterprise. That said, he comes up smelling like the proverbial rose in comparison to Maria Bello, who is just flat-out awful throughout as Evelyn and no, I am not just saying that because she isn’t Rachel Weisz. Actually, Bello has shown her significant acting chops in the past in films like “The Cooler” and “A History of Violence” and therefore, it is surprising to see just how badly she comes off here in her increasingly shrill efforts to convince us that she is British (using an accent that would get hooted out of even lesser high-school theater groups) and that she is having fun pretending that she is battling non-mummy mummies and that she and Fraser, who have zero chemistry together, are actually a romantic item. As their issue, Luke Ford is staggeringly annoying and unnecessary (except possibly to launch another spin-off franchise)--imagine the sprit of Cousin Oliver reborn in the body of one of those twists from “American Teen” and you will get a better idea of just how repellent he really is here. The only actors who retain even trace elements of their dignity here are Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh and they only manage to pull that off by the time-honored method of managing to stay off-camera for as long as possible in order to avoid embarrassment.

In hindsight, these failures probably aren’t very surprising--it is the rare ambitious tranquil that dares to attempt to do something new and interesting and while there are man words that could be used to describe this film, “new” and interesting” are definitely not among them. What is surprising is that it even fails on the simple level of providing viewers with distinctive eye candy to savor. This is another one of those films in which virtually all the visual effects are based in the kind of poorly rendered CGI that would seem out of place in a lowly B feature, let alone an expensive studio tentpole epic like this one. One the surface, the effects look terrible--when General Han is transformer in a terra-cotta warrior, it looks as though he is suddenly being transformed into a giant bowl of pudding--and making matters work is the inescapable fact that they have the unfortunate luck to appear on movie screens only a couple of weeks after “The Dark Knight” demonstrated just how smashingly effective old-school practical effects could still be in the right hands. Of course, the effects could have been flawlessly designed and executed and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference based on the evidence here because Rob Cohen clearly has no idea how to shoot either them or any of his action sequences in a manner that suggests even the slightest grasp of the subject of screencraft. Towards the end, he even manages to take what should have been a slam-dunk scene--a final battle featuring HK action superstars Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh going at it--but he stages it in such a lackluster and distant style that we might has well be watching some B-roil footage of a couple of extras getting into a slap-fight after lunch one day.

Boring, predictable and completely devoid of action, scares, excitement, humor and romance, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” (and yes, I had to scroll upward in order to recall the title once again) is a film so devoid of any true entertainment value that you might actually be better off withering in the hot sun for a couple of hours than you would be by watching it--at least the brains cells that you would kill off in the heat who go with smiles on their faces. Granted, it may not be the single most useless and appalling franchise extension to hit theaters this summer--that particular booby prize is coming out in a couple of weeks and I assure you that it is a doozy for the ages. However, to paraphrase the immortal words of Tommy Lee Jones in a film much better than this one, it’ll do until that one arrives.

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