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Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The

Universal // PG-13 // December 16, 2008
List Price: $39.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted December 12, 2008 | E-mail the Author
This summer, two globetrotting
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adventure franchises were dusted off for the first time in years. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull saw Harrison Ford once again picking up the whip and fedora as Indiana Jones, and after seven years, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor drags Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evie O'Connell (Maria Bello) out of retirement.

Well, it's been that long if I'm reading the calendar pinned on the wall alright, but this third Mummy flick actually picks up thirteen years after the last go-around. Rick and Evie have long since hung up their pistols and cancelled their subscriptions to whatever the Bembridge Scholars are churning out these days. Yup, it's a life of quiet, wedded bliss, and they're bored stiff. Rick's so desperate for action that he takes to gunning down trout in the stream bubbling down the road from their palatial estate, and Evie is hit by a nasty case of writer's block, only really able to scribble down stories about her real-life adventures that have been in the rear window for a lifetime now. When the Brits want to fork over a mystical artifact to the Chinese government as a show of good faith, Rick and Evie leap at the chance to play courier. Only...whoops! Turns out China is the current stomping grounds for their now-twentysomething year old son Alex (Luke Ford), who's picked up the family business of skulking around ancient tombs and has unearthed the location of the sprawling country's first emperor.

Two thousand years earlier, Emperor Han (Jet Li) united China under his iron fist. Having mastered the elements and wielding dark sorcery that allowed him to transform into a legion of fantastic creatures, Han was just decades from conquering every square inch of the globe. The only thing standing in the way of world domination was his aging body. Han sought immortality, but...y'know, be careful what you wish for and all that. Cursed by the sorceress (Michelle Yeoh) he betrayed, Han and his armies were transformed into clay statues and buried deep beneath the sands of the Mongolian desert. Seemingly trapped forever, no power on this earth could hope to stand in Han's way if he were ever to be restored., guess what happens next? Despite the change of scenery from Egypt to the Far East, the formula doesn't veer all that far away from that first Mummy redux: an ancient evil is unleashed and gradually regains his power, the enemies of this long-buried force team up with the O'Connells, a romance brews, lotsa special effects and a campy sense of humor are hammered out...yeah. You know the drill.

Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is
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hovering somewhere around the 14% mark on Rotten Tomatoes, snagging more savage reviews from critics than dreck like Meet Dave and The Happening. I wouldn't really go along with that. This third Mummy flick isn't's just that this room temperature revival is aggressively okay.

This third installment is the shortest of the Mummy flicks, clocking in almost a half-hour under The Mummy Returns, and the movie really breezes along...maybe too quickly, even. Some plot points seem awfully rushed, and others -- like a cursed knife that's the only hope of stopping the emperor dead in his tracks -- are just lazily written. Immaculately designed sets, some first-rate CGI taking the place of the low-rent sloppiness from The Mummy Returns, and a slew of enormous action sequences...bringing a director with such a heightened emphasis on visuals like Rob Cohen (xXx) onboard at least means it looks nice. The constant cracking of the cursed emperor and the terra cotta warriors as they move in particular stands out. The franchise's sense of humor is...well, kind of intact, although it doesn't score nearly as many laughs as before. I mean, a gaggle of yeti kicking a field goal in the Himalayas, a yak puking in a sick bag...even a meta-quip about the cast being swapped around stutters and stumbles.

Rachel Weisz opted not to hop onboard again as Evie, so Maria Bello swooped into the role. I generally like Bello a lot and think of her as an actress who makes any movie she's in better than it would've been otherwise. As charming as she is this time around, though, Bello still seems really miscast. She's never really able to ignite that same spark with Brendan Fraser that Weisz had in the other two Mummy flicks. At first, that's intentional -- I mean, they're playing a bored married couple with twentysomething years under their belt together -- but even when they're back in action and their pulses start thumping back to life again, that chemistry still really isn't there. Bello also struggles with a faux-British accent that comes and goes. Fraser leaps back into his part without missing a beat, though, and as uneasily as so many elements from the other movies carry over all these years later, he's the steadiest and most reliable thing in here.

There's quite a bit of excitement
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in the extras about Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh being pitted against each other -- their first time fighting on-screen together since Tai Chi Master fifteen years ago and their first time ever squaring off on opposite sides -- but they're both a pretty small part of the movie. Li makes a monstrous impression as the emperor, but he's only in any sort of vaguely recognizable form in the opening and closing sequences in the movie. For the rest of the flick, the emperor is either a pan-seared corpse caked in terra cotta or transformed into one enormous mythical creature or another. Yeoh's role is disappointingly small as well. Many of the movie's best moments come when Yeoh is on-screen, but there's not nearly as much of her as I'd like.

If I were really being fussy, I'd poke fun at the fact that Brendan Fraser's supposed to be playing the father of a twentysomething-year-old thrillseeker. There's a strong physical resemblance, but with only twelve years separating Fraser and Aussie heartthrob Luke Ford, they really don't look all that much like father and son. Alex doesn't have nearly that same hook that Rick does but gobbles up an awful lot of screentime anyway, and I wouldn't have minded if writers Al Gough and Miles Millar had yanked that leftover from The Mummy Returns out of the flick entirely. Isabella Leong is a better addition to the franchise, shouldering so much of the action remarkably well and fielding the too-adorable-for-words torch now that Rachel Weisz has set sail for sunnier shores.

Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a pretty huge improvement over The Mummy Returns -- better CGI, a tighter pace, and none of that eye-rolling clunkiness with the kid -- but that classic B-movie sense of globetrotting adventure with a sprawling effects budget from the first two movies seems too calculated and forced this time around. Rob Cohen and company do their best to hammer out that same sense of infectious fun, but this big, loud, kinda mindless summer action flick doesn't rank much higher than okay. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a disposable, kinda-sorta good time and worth a rental for fans of the first two movies, but one spin will probably be enough. Rent It.

Wow. The
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Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
looks incredible on Blu-ray, ranking dizzyingly close to the top that the format has to offer. Detail and definition are consistently outstanding, and unlike the franchise's last go-around, the extensive digital effects work holds up to the scrutiny of 1080p. The palette is keyed to each backdrop -- a sunbaked gold in the desert along with frigid blues and whites in the Himalayas, particularly -- and its bolder hues continually leap off the screen. Black levels are deep and robust throughout as well. A gritty texture is faintly visible, lending Tomb of the Dragon Emperor a convincingly filmlike appearance even with so much of the movie tweaked and reshaped in the digital domain. I couldn't stumble upon any flaw at all, really. This is an amazing looking disc and one of the first I'd grab off the shelf to show what Blu-ray has to offer.

Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is presented at its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1 and has been encoded with AVC.

The lossless soundtrack on this Blu-ray disc -- offered here in 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio -- is every bit as spectacular. The sound design is exceptionally aggressive, bolstered by foundation-rattling bass that thunders for the better part of two hours and an unrelenting sonic assault from every direction: millenia-old statues exploding back to life, fireballs, sprays of gunfire, rocket launchers, a couple hundred megatons of fireworks, swirling sorcery, and thousands upon thousands of arrows tearing through the sky, just to rattle off a few. Even outside of the action, there's a strong, persistent sense of ambiance, going so far as to toss in some directionality with its dialogue. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor boasts an enormous dynamic range, and the clarity and distinctness of each element in the mix trumps anything DVD could ever hope to belt out. My only gripe is that dialogue is dialed down a touch too low in some stretches, but that's a minor concern considering that it's still clean, clear, and consistently discernable throughout. This is a first-rate soundtrack and easily qualifies as reference quality.

Traditional Dolby Digital soundtracks are offered in Spanish and French. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor also sports the usual assortment of subtitle streams: English (SDH), Spanish, and French. Because so much of the movie is set in the Far East, it follows that not all of its dialogue is in English. Owners of constant image height projection rigs ought to be happy to hear that these stretches are subtitled within the frame of the movie, not spilling over into the letterboxing bars.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor spreads its extras across two discs. They're much more intensely focused on the shoot itself, not delving into editing, the recording of the score, the sprawling visual effects work, or even the logistical hurdles that go into assembling a movie like this all that much. Several of its featurettes are presented in high definition, but a handful do spill over into the digital copy DVD. This means that some extras seemingly produced in high-def are limited to 480p only, and that's a disappointment.
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Disc One

  • Deleted / Extended Scenes (11 min.): This reel of deleted scenes is presented in chronological order, belting out some more action -- actually seeing General Guo drawn and quartered, a grenade chucked off the side of a motorcycle, a much longer fight near the climax, and the emperor shattered and reforming -- along with some additional snippets of characterization, including a lingering look at some of the romances that are sparked along with a longer epilogue.

  • The Making of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (23 min.; HD): This making-of piece covers the course of the 89 day shoot, mixing candid behind-the-scenes footage along with a slew of interviews. Tackling everything from the construction of the sets to lighting Jet Li's hands on fire, this is the best of the featurettes in this set.

  • From City to Desert (16 min.; HD): The shoot for Tomb of the Dragon Emperor trotted even further across the globe than its characters do, setting up shop in Québec before heading clear across the world to China. This featurette delves into the locations used throughout production, from building a Himalayan mountain set in a MontrĂ©al parking lot to filming on the outskirts of the Mongolian desert.

  • Legacy of the Terra Cotta (13 min.; HD): Opening with a comment about melding fantasy with the rich history of China, it seems like this featurette is about to tackle the real-life stories that inspired Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. It doesn't, though, and its actual intent is kind of muddled as it settles into just another making-of piece. Some of the talking points this time around are the Chinese craftsmanship on display throughout the movie, the authenticity that comes with actually shooting on the other end of the world, and Rob Cohen's barely-restrained glee as his film connects the remnants of the Northern Wall with his own sets and digital constructions.
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  • Audio Commentary with Rob Cohen: While I wasn't exactly bowled over by the movie, I have to admit that the commentary track here really is pretty fantastic. Cohen is never at a loss for something to say, and the best part is relating his seemingly endless knowledge of Chinese history to what unspools on-screen in Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. Cohen also devotes quite a bit of the track to digital effects, from the evolution of the art throughout his career, the mindset behind the look and execution of these computer rendered visuals, and how the workload of this movie's 1,000 CG effects was spread across two companies. He also takes care to give Blu-ray an extended thumbs-up, does the same for Barack Obama too, gushing about how the now-President-elect is a hero hellbent on vanquishing an evil empire in his own right. Wow! Didn't think I'd hear that in a commentary track, but anyway...even if you didn't think all that much of Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, it's worth giving its commentary a spin.

  • U-Control: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor sports five different interactive options that can be selected while the movie plays.

    • Scene Explorer - a pane of thumbnails lets viewers cycle between storyboards, animatics, behind-the-scenes footage, and the raw plates used for the effects work at a few key moments throughout the film.

    • Know Your Mummy - using nested windows in an elaborate, 3D rendered tomb, this feature compares Tomb of the Dragon Emperor to the two other flicks in the Mummy franchise.

    • The Dragon's Emperor Challenge - this trivia game lobs out a barrage of questions, and enough wrong guesses will condemn players to a life of torment...well, not really, but you do run the risk of getting a message about being cursed and losing the game.

    • Visual Commentary - the one U-Control feature that runs throughout every second of the movie, a camera is aimed at Rob Cohen as he delivers his audio commentary.

    • Picture in Picture - rather than just recycle footage from the featurettes scattered across the two-disc set, this picture-in-picture feature sticks mostly to its own set of interviews and behind-the-scenes snippets. Some of the topics include many casting notes, comments about sprinkling romantic comedy in with the high-octane action, actors goofing around in the Himalayan "snow" that wound up wreaking havoc on the cast and crew, peeks at Jet Li's jade armor and Michelle Yeoh's elaborate wardrobe, and a peek at the very final moments of the shoot.
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Disc Two

  • A Call to Action: The Casting Process (5 min.): One of the most lightweight featurettes in this two-disc set, "A Call to Action" cycles through a few quick character notes and a couple of gushing comments about how talented and wonderful everyone is.

  • Preparing for Battle with Brendan Fraser and Jet Li (10 min.): This featurette delves into each character's distinct fighting style and the weaponry they keep on hand. There are also looks at the filming of several standout stunts with an emphasis on Jet Li's astonishing precision as a martial artist.

  • Jet Li: Crafting the Emperor Mummy (8 min.): Tomb of the Dragon Emperor's digital wizardy isn't lavished with all that much attention in these extras, and one of the only featurettes to touch on the digital effects work is "Crafting the Emperor Mummy". Fluid tests as the liquified clay spews out of every pore, different iterations of the cracked terra cotta skin, and all of the digital capture work swirling around Jet Li are featured.

  • Creating New and Supernatural Worlds (8 min.): Production designer Nigel Phelps steps out front in this featurette, which looks at the scale, grandeur, and meticulous attention to detail in Tomb of the Dragon Emperor's sets. The mix of the physical and digital in the Himalayas, the period backlot in Shanghai, and a standing Chinese set that'd cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $100 million to duplicate are a few of the topics that are touched on here.

  • Digital Copy: This second disc also includes a digital copy of the movie for PCs and portable media devices.
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The Final Word
Stephen Sommers' reboot of The Mummy ranks up there for me as one of the most deliriously fun adventure flicks of the past ten years, and it's a drag that neither sequel managed to recapture that same hypercaffeinated B-movie spark. Considering how lousy The Mummy Returns was, I guess just feeling indifferent towards Tomb of the Dragon Emperor counts as a step-up. Rob Cohen's spin on this franchise that's been caked under a few inches of dust is fine but forgettable, and I don't think the movie really deserves the brutal reviews it's been scoring. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is decent enough for me to stick around for another sequel, but at the same time, I can't really picture myself wanting to shell out thirty bucks to buy it either.

I may be shrugging off the movie as okay, but I'm definitely impressed with its release on Blu-ray. While the featurettes are a little slimmer than usual for a summer tentpole, the slew of Blu-ray-exclusive bells and whistles are a nice showcase for some of what the format can do, and both the high-def video and lossless audio are reference quality. If you caught Tomb of the Dragon Emperor theatrically and dug it, it's worth picking up on Blu-ray, but otherwise...? I'd say Rent It first.
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