“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is the film in question. Like the previous “Mummy” sequel, the third film in the franchise jumps forward a decade plus, to the cozy year of 1946. After spinning their various previous adventures into a career as spies for the Allies during the war, the O’Connell’s (a returning Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello stepping into replace Rachel Weisz) have given up their adventuring ways, turning the keys over to their now twenty-something son Alex (Luke Ford). But when Alex uncovers the long lost tomb of the immortal Dragon Emperor (Jet Li), the fractured family’s got to solve its problems in order to stop another mummy.
Needless to say, lots and lots of comparisons can be made between “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.” Therefore, I won’t be making any.
A movie series called “The Mummy” is naturally going to have a fairly limited focus. Universal and Alphaville might have been better off resetting the series to focus on the various adventures of Rick and Evelyn to give them a wider range of material to use. But they haven’t, so mummies it is. New director Rob Cohen (“XXX,” “The Fast and the Furious”), stepping in to replace franchise originator Stephen Sommers, and his screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (“Smallville”) have wisely chosen to pass on bringing previous villain Imohtep back, opting instead to create a new villain for the series based on the famous Terracotta Army from China.
In practice though, the new mummy is all but indistinguishable from the old one. He spends most of the time stomping through the film as a computer creation that vaguely resembles Jet Li, speaking with a heavily modulated voice, but with none of Li’s charisma. The idea of an unstoppable Terracotta Soldier come to life isn’t a bad one. Maybe not unique, but not bad, but the filmmakers don’t seem comfortable with that, imbuing him with extra superpowers (control over the five classical Chinese elements). The only thing he’s interested in is conquering the world, he doesn’t seem to have any other desires or facets even before he became a mummy, and all he needs to do that is an ancient Chinese artifact that will allow him to fully unlock his powers and become immortal. An artifact the O’Connell’s happen to have. Hmmm. This is all sounding vaguely familiar.
That’s potentially okay though. The series has always been as much about the heroes as it was the villains, mixing a light sense of humor and decent repartee with some well-conceived heroics. A lot of that comes from good casting. Fraser remains a criminally underused leading man, one of the few able to change gears so easily between comedy and action without shortchanging either. And Bello cuts a surprisingly dashing action heroine, whose Evey is a completely different person from the bookish intellectual of the previous films. All of the film’s best moments belong to them, especially their introduction as they slowly go mad in retirement. It’s possible Fraser and Bello have even better chemistry than Fraser and Weisz did.
Unfortunately, even the best actor is still limited by their material, and the material in “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is frankly not the best. Like a lot of adventure films it tends to offer exposition in place of character or theme or often even plot development, wallowing instead in back story. An adventure film that doesn’t get past that won’t ever be great, but it can still be entertaining, especially with engaging dialogue. It’s too bad then that the filmmakers have an abysmal combined sense of humor. No joke is too silly for them to attempt, the worst being a pair of Tibetan Yeti celebrating an American football field goal during a fight. No, I’m not making that up. There’s more like that throughout, especially whenever John Hannah is around. Yes, he’s supposed to be the cowardly, often unlucky comic relief straddling the fence between being irritating and being funny. In “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” he stops straddling and comes down firmly on one side, and it’s not the funny side. What you get then are ‘jokes’ whose only real contribution to the film is to completely destroy the suspension of disbelief. And that’s a death knell for any adventure film, especially one filled with such mad things as the sudden appearance of abominable snowmen. “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” cannot resist winking at itself throughout. The filmmakers don’t seem to realize there’s a difference between taking their story seriously and being serious. If they can’t be bothered to care about what their film is doing, why should anyone else?
It has also has the problem a lot of sequels have, which is the desire to take all the good stuff that came before (which was previously enough to fill an entire film) and add to it without taking much out to make room. The result is usually a film that’s overstuffed and unable to develop anything very well, and “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is no exception. On top of Hannah, son Alex returns, this time as a young man who has in the last decade mysteriously lost his English accent and replaced it with quite possibly the worst New York accent ever attempted by any actor. Now that he’s an adult he gets plenty of his own action beats, beginning with a decent tomb raiding sequence, which really just confuses things. The idea is that he’s a contrast with his father, a version of the happy-go-lucky adventurer Fraser played in the first “Mummy” film versus the older, cautious man Rick has become. The reality is a film that isn’t entirely sure who its leading man is or which story is the story, and instead tries to have its cake and eat it, too. And, unlike his father, he’s just about the blandest person on earth. It’s awful difficult to care about anything he does, which isn’t easy considering he gets so much screen time.
And because he is a leading man, he needs his romantic interest, and gets it in the form of Lin (Isabella Long), this “Mummy” film’s secret guardian sworn to defeat an ancient cursed evil. And she’s brought along her mother (Michelle Yeoh), a mystic with an ancient connection to the Emperor and his army, for kung fu and exposition as needed. That’s a lot of characters to juggle, more than “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is really interested in. The only real story is between Alex and his parents and everyone else is around only because they (or their character type) have been in the other “Mummy” movies.
And that pretty much sums up “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” to a tee. Sure it’s moved on to a new locale and a new background mythology, but those are just new clothes for the same old beast. Sequels are never that easy to begin with. Audiences generally want ‘the same, but different’ out of them, but they themselves don’t know what that means until they actually see the film. The result is often a film that is the same in every way as its predecessor except at its heart where it counts, and that goes double for “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.” It’s replaced the lighthearted fun of the previous films with sophomoric attempts at humor and all around silliness. Cohen has made some very good looking action films in the past, but even that falls apart here as “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” swerves widely between lush and bland, and it’s not helped at all by a score that tries to be adventurous, but instead is just brassy and clunky.
The modern big budget adventure movie fixation was created by talented filmmakers who decided to take B-movie material and treat it with care and sophistication. The downside is that eventually everyone thinks they can do it until you get a lot of B-movie level directors working on B-movie level scripts, and not realizing it. The result is a usually a tremendous waste of time and money. Fraser is as good as ever, and Bello is a welcome addition to the cast, but they can’t save “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” from its innate silliness.