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Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The

Universal // PG-13 // August 1, 2008
List Price: Unknown [Buy now and save at Anrdoezrs]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted August 4, 2008 | E-mail the Author
Everybody has their own action movie guilty pleasure that they can't get enough of, ever. Mine just so happens to be Stephen Sommers' 1999 blockbuster remake of The Mummy, a movie I have purchased on the home video format more times than I'd really like to discuss. It's got it all: entertaining-in-doses Brendan Fraser, the endlessly captivating Rachel Weisz, and an attractive chunk of Egyptian components dolled up as a fun-as-hell thrillride. Being that the latter is the strongest driving force, let's chalk The Mummy up to being a guilty pleasure because of its lighthearted play on Egyptian culture.

Now The Mummy Returns, a semi-successful return to the series from returning director Sommers, has an unfair bias working in its favor: charismatic stars and pre-existent momentum built from the original. Sure, it's a far-cry cash grab from The Mummy's enjoyableness, but it still has the chemistry between Fraser and Weisz that holds entertainment value. It backs away a bit from those involving Egyptian roots that appeal to me, but it still has a good enough time exploding mummies and enjoying the smarmy banter between the O'Connells, especially from Rachel Weisz' growingly talented self. This one earns a viewing here and there because of her charisma; in that, let's mark this one up as a success primarily because of Weisz' return.

Bet you can guess where this is going.

What happens to a Mummy movie when both the Egyptian culture and the presence of Rachel Weisz are stripped from the plan-o-gram, not to mention the efforts from the don't-know-what-you've-got-till-it's-gone director of the first two installments? The result is The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, a loud, obnoxious, and unbelievably weak slice of befuddled escapist cinema from director Rob Cohen. Replacing pharaohs, pyramids, and sculptures of Anubis and Horace with dragons, fire-eyed stone horses, and abominable snowmen with a penchant for saving immortal Chinese guardians -- all within the same pre-established universe -- works out to be one of the worst ideas this side of Ang Lee's emo-imagining of The Hulk.

We're told the story, rather forcefully in a Lord of the Rings type of voiceover, of the Dragon Emperor Han's reign of heartless tyranny. He, like all men seeking power in fantastical universes, desires to obtain immortality so that he might finish out his conquest for world domination. Jet Li, adorning an outfit that looks like it was borrowed from the Hero set, goes largely wasted in Mummy: Dragon Emperor, as he does little more than bookshelf the film with his presence. Once he is locked away in just about the same exact fashion as ole' Imhotep's demise at the beginning of The Mummy, we don't see him again in human form until much, much later. Taking away your strongest face, or second best in some eyes if you're figuring in Brendan Fraser, is not a wise move for a flick so divergent from its predecessors.

Instead, Mummy: Dragon Emperor offers up some hollow, chemistry-less poking and prodding between the retired adventurer O'Connell's, played without inspiration by Fraser and Bello. As a fan of A History of Violence and Payback, it's a real shame to watch Maria Bello downshift into a role that just isn't her speed. She's a hardened, stern actress with grim vivacity -- and she's trying to emulate an ex-librarian Egyptologist with barely a flutter of fighting skill. Put bluntly, she's just not Evy; one of the many mistakes Mummy: Dragon Emperor makes is trying to keep Evelyn O'Connell around just for the ease of moving with Sommers' formula of action / marital banter / action from The Mummy Returns. They should've just taken her out of the picture via a fatal illness or deadly tomb raiding trap, developed a separation conflict between O'Connell and his son based on her death, and then handed him a new heroine that embodies Bello's strongest traits ... or something along those lines. I understand the infatuation people have with characters in movies and wanting to indulge in them further, but Maria Bello inadvertently drains that affection. Mummy: Dragon Emperor needed Rachel Weisz as Evy, and suffers greatly without her.

To attempt to fill that void, we're treated to the budding chemistry between young boy Alex O'Connell, now a college screw-up following in his tomb-raiding parents' footsteps, and his new beautiful Chinese assassin-companion, in which they fail in their task. The young son responsible for the craziness in Returns is, coincidentally, the reason for yet another mummy conflict here. You can probably guess what follows: uneven banter between the boy and his adventuring parents, hinged on the idea that it's all their fault that he is the way he is. It's not a terribly great formula in Returns and it's even worse with an aged O'Connell son in Mummy: Dragon Emperor. Essentially, the script just finds a way for Evy & Rick, Alex, and bar owner Johnathan to all be in Shanghai at the same time for this resurrection, which is as hard to swallow as it probably was for the writers to rustle it up in their heads.

The one thing that Cohen's Mummy film does quite well comes in making the process of blowing crap to smitherines look great, which he does with frequency all throughout this boisterous diversion. Director of photography Simon Duggan deserves a lot of credit here for making each shot in the film much more striking than it probably should. He captures each scene, from the explosive backdrop of Shanghai during the Chinese New Year to the snowy ice caps leading to Shangri-La, with a chilly beauty that's unexpected and hard to piece together with a series normally drenched in the warmth of blinding tans and yellows.

It takes two to make great-looking effects, and Cohen's team of special effects guys bring the other half of the puzzle together nicely with solid explosives work and computer-generated tangibility. Jet Li's CG mummy replication is very impressive, not so much because of its likeness but because of the tangibility surrounding the materials on his body. As for the mummies, they look expectedly leaps and bounds better than The Mummy or The Mummy Returns. Cohen's got all the aesthetic prowess he needs to build a good summer blockbuster in his hands here, which makes it all the more frustrating when it spirals down the drain.

Foremost, Mummy: Dragon Emperor limps and tumbles around due to a dreadfully illogical and almost insulting script that'll make skeptics and pitchfork mobs out of even more amiable action fans. When the fate of our character's lives weighs in the balance of some unexplainable yetis that descended from the mountaintops near Shangri-La, it's obvious that the movie has steered away from the high road. Whether yetis appear in Himalayan culture is inconsequential when a character that we've just recently met, though immortal and probably filled with such capabilities, beckons their presence at her whim. It's just sloppy, unbelievable filmmaking.

What's even more frustrating is the Dragon Emperor's usage of power. When you have the capacity to control fire, ice, and earth, there's got to be more exciting and devastating attacks than the mere parlor tricks that he uses against the O'Connells. I'm reminded of the mockery directed at the James Bond series in the original Austin Powers movie: instead of the prolonged and elaborate schemes to kill the protagonist, why wouldn't they blast the target? For entertainment sake in the audience's eyes is the only answer, which doesn't help when the pacing and slapdash editing make you want to leave after just fifteen minutes in the film. Instead of a cohesive an entertaining battle of good vs. evil, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor feels like four different films laboriously taped together -- an Asian martial arts fantasy, a tale of youthful romance between polar opposites, an explosive snowy action extravaganza, and a wayward follow-up to an already meddled Mummy sequel -- all of which aren't done terribly well.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site



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