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Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, The

Universal // PG-13 // December 16, 2008
List Price: $34.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted December 16, 2008 | E-mail the Author

The Film:

Film Review taken from Thomas' 2008 Theatrical Review of Dragon Emperor

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.

The DVD:

Similar in packaging to their Deluxe Editions of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns released earlier in the same year, Universal's The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor comes in a standard swing-trayed keepcase with a glossy cardboard slipcover enveloping the case. Each of the discs sport zilch in the discart department, labeled with nothing but red text atop the silver surface. There's no mention of "Disc 1" anywhere on the first disc, so there's a very good chance that the film disc is the same for both editions of the product. The Digital Copy code is available on an insert in the inner clasps.

Video and Audio:

If there's anything that this DVD package gets right, it's the digital quality of its presentation. Visually, we're treated to a solid 2.39:1 widescreen presentation enhanced for 16x9 televisions. The photography on Mummy: Dragon Emperor is surprisingly vibrant and multifaceted, sporting a wide range of colors that spill over to both brash reds and oranges to both deep and icy shades of blue and green. It handles this color saturation properly, if exaggerated to minor degrees. Digital noise and a hint of edge enhancement do flutter in and out of the image, but they don't detract from the larger chunk of footage that looks rock solid. Most impressive are the wide ranges of detail, sporting textured and nuanced granules in both the terra cotta and ice-laden consistencies. Not perfect by any stretch, but it's a very pleasing presentation.

Coming up right behind Mummy: Dragon Emperor's visual presentation is one of the more aggressive Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks I've heard all year. To say the least, this entry in the franchise steps up to the same level of aural activity as the others. It throws everything but the kitchen sink at this treatment -- firework explosions, chiming of battle-engaged blades, and billowing thuds in hollowed tombs and interiors -- all of which this track knocks out of the park. It remains perfectly postured, never screeching into higher-leveled distortion area, while keeping vocal clarity easily as audible and buoyant as the raging special effects. Moreover, the semi-signature musical cues (altered a bit to spice up even the musical aspects of the film) match the action aptly as well. It's one of the stronger, more potent standard mixes I've had the chance to hear this year. Spanish, French, and English DVS (descriptive for visually impaired) tracks are available, as are optional English, Spanish, and French subtitles.

Special Features:

Commentary with Director Rob Cohen:
Cohen mixes glimmers of insight with way too much plot regurgitation in his commentary, taking a laid back approach to analyzing the film through the track. He gives a few glimpses into his emotionality behind the picture, especially noticeable when he starts to explore the more heartfelt scenes between Rick and Alex later on. However, he seems to go into sales pitch mode later on, discussing his presumption that everyone is watching this in Blu-ray and his hopes for creating yet another Mummy movie if Dragon Emperor takes off. He also mentions several times to "Google" materials, which can get a little infuriating. It's a pretty drawn out and sober commentary, but he does manage to squeeze in some ample factoids here and there.

Also included on the first disc are a little over ten (10) minutes of Deleted and Extended Scenes.

On Disc 2:

Making of Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (22:46):
There's lots of face time with Rob Cohen in this featurette, capturing plenty of behind-the-scenes footage in a timeline-structured fashion. It offers an overview on each of the shooting sessions -- leading up to the close of the 89-day shoot -- by giving surface-level glimpses into each of the days. It's a fun collage instead of an informational piece.

From City to Desert (15:44):
After the initial featurette, we start to dig into the good stuff. From City to Desert covers each of the shooting locations in-depth, covering how they transformed locations just outside of the city into snowy locations. It's obvious here how much involvement the actors have with this franchise, as Fraser and crew get in on the action with great behind-the-scenes footage.

Legacy of the Terra Cotta (13:35):
Focus falls on the creation of the undead army sequences and Chinese-centric "historical" pieces here, showing how they gave the them tangibility and attractiveness through production design and computer generation. Interview time with Cohen and producer Stephen Sommers splice in with more on-set shots, becoming especially interesting when focus falls on creating the computer-generated Chinese emperor.

Call to Action: Casting Process (4:45):
Here, we've got a short featurette that covers the casting process for a "new Mummy". Don't get excited: in this, there's close to no actual discussion on casting decision (read: why Maria Bello), but instead just merely pats everyone on the back for their good qualities

Preparing for Battle (10:41):
The strongest reason to soak in Mummy: Dragon Emperor is the action sequences, which receive some focus in this quality featurette. Probably my favorite element of the featurette comes in their discussion of adjusting fighting styles to the physical qualities of individual actors -- an element utilized in everyday martial arts concepts. More of the cast's joy in shooting the film pours through here, all through more great on-set footage that covers points like Maria Bello's swordfighting to Luke Ford's rough-and-tumble style.

Jet Li: Crafting the Emperor Mummy (8:00):
Though it finds a little elaboration early in the featurettes, Jet Li's conceptualization as the Dragon Emperor finds focus here. Actually, it's a complete computer-generated effects featurette that shows how they utilized the Terra Cotta elements for both Jet Li and the rest of the illustrations.

Creating New and Supernatural Worlds (8:33):
Finally, we've got a featurette that covers actor and filmmaker retrospects on being surrounded by these massive and whimsical set pieces. It's a fine watch, but at this point the interview material and character inspiration starts to get a little redundant.

Final Thoughts:

Ah, how much I wanted to like Rob Cohen's installment in the Mummy franchise, Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The first one's major guilty pleasure territory, while the second carries over that same sort of charm for a second helping of the comedy-action enjoyment. Sadly, due to a horrendous script plugged up by nails-on-a-chalkboard line delivery and nonsensical jumps in logic, Dragon Emperor fails to make this third time a charm. Some of it stems from the lack of Rachel Weisz, while some of it just comes from an uneven mismatch of plot elements; but no matter what the culprit may be, the panache that established the series can't be seen too well here -- even if you're squinting really, really hard.

However, there is plenty of enjoyable action crammed into its runtime, and Universal's high-quality digital presentation of the film gives it enough pizazz for a Rental just to give your screen and speakers an ample workout with this erratic popcorn action flick. It's an enjoyable experience in home theater entertainment that, admittedly, does get a wee bit better once you're prepped for its nonsensical flaws.

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