A film review by Craig J. Koban





2008, PG-13, 112 mins.


Rick O'Connell: Brendan Fraser / Emperor Han: Jet Li / Evelyn O'Connell: Maria Bello / Zi Juan: Michelle Yeoh / Alex O'Connell: Luke Ford

Directed by Rob Cohen / Written by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar

There is a sly little moment in THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR where one of the characters kind of throws his hands up in the air and screams, “I hate mummies!!” 

In many ways, I felt his words were abundantly truthful…but in more indicative ways of describing the experience of seeing this film in general. 

This is the third film in THE MUMMY franchise, so its inclusion now constitutes that this series now be labeled a trilogy, but has there ever been a more unnecessary trilogy than this one?  The first MUMMY film from 1999 was a surprise hit for Universal and, in large part, was largely an enjoyable, lightweight action adventure romp that I would aptly call Indiana Jones-lite.  That first film, albeit highly derivative, was a fairly infectious blend of high-octane adventure, mild horror, and cutting edge (for its time) visual effects (viewing the film recently, its CGI effects have severely dated).  As a crowd-pleasing bit of popcorn escapism, THE MUMMY was a giddy time at the movies. 

Because the suits at Universal saw the mighty dollar signs, THE MUMMY 2 (aka THE MUMMY RETURNS from 2001) was a lackluster and pointless sequel because it really had no compelling continuation of the story from the first film: at its core, the sequel existed purely as a money making venture and one to show off advances in computer trickery (which, as evident in the film, were sketchy at best).  I was happy with the first MUMMY, dissatisfied with the second, and now comes the third film, which more clearly than ever before shows that the only point for its participants returning to this franchise was a hefty paycheck.  What’s plentifully in this over-indulgent action-stuffed mess is that characters and story have unrelentingly taken a distant back seat to mind-numbingly excessive and chaotic stunts, disorganized and lazy plotting, wooden dialogue that seems like its coming from the lips of the mummified undead, juvenile pratfalls and physical comedy, and clunky and sloppy CGI overkill that grinds the proceedings to a boorish stop.   

Great trilogies have enduring stories to tell that logically proceed from one film to the next.  THE MUMMY franchise seems oddly and awkwardly all over the map.  Yes, the faces of the main characters are still here (well, most of them) and the quirky and daft tone that marked the first film is also here, but TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR seems too tired, obligatory, redundant, and pitifully routine.  This is a sequel on severe autopilot and it unintelligently abandons the infectiously enjoyable thrills of the 1930’s adventure serials it tries to emulate and instead bombards viewers with confused editing, an overload of computer images, and a genuine lack of inventiveness and ingenuity.  For a film that professes to transport viewers, very rarely has the journey been so uninspired and lacking in playful imagination. 

Even worse is how unmemorable the main villain is here.  The first film had a memorable one in the form of Arnold Vosloo as the reanimated mummy that came back from the dead to reunite himself with his long deceased ancient Egyptian squeeze.  In THE TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR we have been subjugated with unremitting advertising that the villain will be played by none other than Jet Li, but the film absolutely squanders Li as a screen presence.  Not including a prologue that sets up the history of his emperor character, the film portrays Li mostly as a CGI creature made of crumbling stone and with a voice that is very low on the bass register.  Later, at the height of his power, he becomes a shape-shifter, able to turn himself into a three headed, flame-breathing dragon.  This begs the question as to the point of having Li at all in the film.  Equally frustrating is the casting of Michelle Yeoh in a weakly defined supporting role.  Just when we feel like there will be a breathtakingly realized martial arts battle between this two legendary wushu performers at the film’s conclusion, all we get is about half a minute’s worth and hell of a lot of needless computer trickery.  Sigh. 

The film’s story is even more problematic.  We have an opening montage that is set in ancient China and learn of a power hungry Emperor Han (Li) that decides that the best way to reward himself for conquering the enemy and dominating his country is to discover the secret to immortality.  He knows of a witch, Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) that knows how to become immortal, but problems arise when she falls for Han’s general.  Needless to say, Han eliminates this man out of vengeful jealousy and – to avenge her lover – Juan turns the emperor and all of his army to stone.  

Fast forward to 1947 as we see junior teenage adventurer, Alex O’Connell (Luke Ford), discover the buried remains of the emperor and his vast and giant army.  This Alex, of course, is the son of his very famous parents, Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn (formerly played by the lovely Rachel Weisz, now played by Maria Bello; more on that later).  Alex unwittingly awakens and resurrects Han and his army, which is a rather big problem, but not to his dear old dad (“I’ve killed more mummies in my time than you,” he tells his petulant child).  Han wants to take over the world (what else?) and to do so he must awaken his army of entombed 10,000 warriors.  Seeing as taking on a whole army of ancient Chinese undead would be mighty tough, Rick, Evelyn, Alex, and good ol' Uncle Jonathon (John Hannah, funny in the first film, but more irritating here) travel far and wide in search of the new mummy’s underground lair in hopes of stopping him for good. 

Aside from its schlocky, dumb, and sleep-inducing narrative, there are two major problems with the film:  For starters, the casting of Luke Ford as Rick and Evelyn’s son, who in real life is only 13 years Brendan Fraser’s junior.  The sheer ineptitude of this movie’s casting becomes so glaring so quickly that it really taints the whole enterprise: You never once plausibly buy the 26-year-old Ford as the 39-year-old Fraser’s teen kid.  Perhaps less silly – but nonetheless unsatisfactory – is the casting of the usually great Maria Bello as Evelyn.  Bello is a gifted actress, but here she seems to attempt some sort of vague mimicry of Rachel Weisz’s accent, which simply never works, and Bello never really generates any satisfying chemistry with Fraser, which the latter and Weisz had in abundance.  Bello also lacks Weisz's well timed light comic energy and spunky charm and instead plays Evelyn  more as a kick ass, guns blazing, martial arts kicking heroine.  If anything, Weisz indirectly comes across the best in this film for opting out of it.  It’s never a good sign when your leading lady refuses to return to a project due to disagreements with the script. 

TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR is also awash in cheese-infested waters.  The pratfalls are often too slapsticky for their own good, dialogue exchanges are unintentionally giggle inducing, and most of the performances are borderline comatose.   More damaging is the film’s directorial choices, all helmed by Rob Cohen (who recently made another stinker, STEALTH) who seems to never have a clear command of story and character here.  The tone he approximates is often too cartoonish to generate any tangible thrills or chills (one crucial moment where it looks like one of the characters is close to death lacks any sense of tension and sadness because of the goofy vibe throughout).  

If anything, Cohen’s mission. is to abandon any sense of storytelling and character development and to use the uniformly weak script as a launching pad for action scenes (all shot with a epileptic, seizure inducing editing style) and visual effects (some which work, many others which don’t).  The pixelized dominance of the film takes a turn for the worst with the hasty inclusion of, no fooling, a couple of Abominable Snowmen creatures that are both fierce warriors that decide to side with the heroes and, aw shucks, really become cute and cuddly bodyguards to Rick and company.  One key moment where one of the monsters makes a gesture very similar to that of an NFL referee will roll more than a few eyes in the audience, not to mention a would-be hilarious moment when one character is covered with yak vomit.  

In the end, it’s mournfully hard to care about this new MUMMY film.  I still fondly recall 1999’s THE MUMMY as a hollow and thinly veiled knock off of INDIANA JONES, but it was goofy and pleasant, not to mention that Brendan Fraser was a lot of fun as a square jawed, tough as nails, and oftentimes foolish adventure serial archetype.  Yet, whatever unpretentious wit, charm, and spirit that the first film harnessed was chiefly lacking in THE MUMMY RETURNS and is certainly no where to be seen in TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR.  The film is soulless, flat, joyless, and lacking in magic and flare.  It just sits there on the screen and tirelessly lingers, drab and without a sense of purpose.  Perhaps a better title would be CROUCHING MUMMY, HIDDEN EXCITEMENT?

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