The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
By Matthew Huntley
August 7, 2008
The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001) were both products of their time, the kind of old-fashioned adventure films Hollywood resurrected in the latter half of the 1990s. They mostly worked because they're what the industry called for at the time. But, to their credit, fans still look back on them with fond nostalgia, willing to accept them as dumb fun.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor will also be thought of as dumb, but not much fun. In fact, the movie probably won't be thought of at all. It's loud, stupid and, worst of all, dull. The filmmakers have managed to take a premise that's adventurous and exciting by nature and turn it into something uninteresting and witless. Amazingly, the movie was granted a budget in the $150 million range, but it's obvious little of that was relegated to the story department.
The screenplay is a mess of over-exposition. During an opening narration, we're told civil war brewed between the competing kingdoms of ancient China. Each leader wanted control of the land, the most notorious being Emperor Han (Jet Li), a.k.a. the Dragon Emperor. Somehow, Han gains control of the Earth's five major elements but still craves immortality so he can rule for all time. He summons a witch named Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) to bestow him such a power, but Zi Juan knows there's only evil in Han's heart and instead curses him and his army to become terra cotta statues while she escapes to the safe haven of Shangri-la.
Cut to 1946, where our old pal Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) spends his days fly fishing in Britain. His wife, Evelyn (Maria Bello), has written two mummy novels to become a best-selling author. Both are growing bored with their retirement and won't admit they miss the thrill and excitement of mummy chasing. Lucky for them their son Alex (Luke Ford) dropped out of college and has gone digging for the Dragon Emperor's tomb, which he brings back to Shanghai, but not without getting attacked by a mysterious Chinese woman.
Rick and Evelyn arrive in Shanghai to deliver the Eye of Shangri-La to the Chinese, but their mission is actually a set-up so they can help translate the ancient text needed to awaken Emperor Han. As you no doubt have guessed, the Dragon Emperor is awakened and sets out for Shangri-La to break his curse and unite his army to take over the world.
Among the generic and soporific action scenes, there is only one that stands out as clever and exciting. It takes place in the Himalayas when Lin (Isabella Leong), the Chinese woman from the beginning, summons the mountains' yetis for help. These digital creatures are rendered well and are fun to watch, giving the movie a much needed shot in the arm as far as action goes. But there's an underlying problem when a movie's best scene is the one involving screaming yetis (no offense to the yetis).
It's not like the first two Mummy movies were masterpieces, but they were at least charming and whimsical compared to this. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is not terrible, per se; it just arrives at a time when we've been so bombarded by action fantasies that it takes a really great and unique story for any of them to stand out. After the Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and National Treasure series, a franchise like The Mummy feels dated and worn out. There's nothing special about it.
There were some moments I kind of liked, including the playful behavior between Rick and Evelyn, who are afraid to admit they'd risk their lives for a little adventure. Fraser and Bello are a good team on-screen and Maria Bello is more than fitting to fill the role originally played by Rachel Weisz. Bello has a glow about her that I found enchanting. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Luke Ford, as Alex, who's too wooden and monotone for us to really care about him.
A friend of mine actually made a good point about the Alex character, saying he was too old for this movie. In The Mummy Returns, Alex was about seven-years-old. Here, he's about 20. In real life, Ford is 26 and Fraser and Bellow are near 40. Did the filmmakers not see anything wrong with this? I'm willing to accept the illogical aging process found in the movies, but I think it would have been a better choice to make Alex a teenager and have him again played by Freddie Boath, the spunky and enthusiastic little kid from The Mummy Returns.
Anyway, there's just no reason to see Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Everyone involved in its making, including director Rob Cohen (Stealth, xXx), are out of its league. You can imagine the money burning just to get this into theaters, with all its lavish sets and overblown special effects. I sat through the end credits and found it unsettling just how many people helped make this movie possible.
Right now, Hollywood seems to think they have to turn a franchise into three or four parts. They can't just settle on two, which is a shame, because by part three, a series seems to inevitably decline. Typically, the first part is a test to see if the premise works, followed by a sequel that demonstrates how much the filmmakers learned from the first, which is why sequels can be better. Part three tends to push it because the filmmakers think they already have a lock on the audience and don't have to respect them as much. There are exceptions, of course, but The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is not one of them. It's another Hollywood franchise that went one movie too many.