Bad filmmaking's newest poster child is The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and it absolutely deserves the label. Director Rob Cohen's transparent money grab masquerading as a fun summer blockbuster is an egregious cinema sinkhole, and proof that special effects, audience familiarity, and large budgets cannot save films. The original 1999 Mummy was silly but also enjoyable, and even though 2001's Mummy Returns was a step down, it was at least consistent with the first film's adventure-comedy tone. Not so with Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which magnifies the bad stuff about the original films while also ignoring what made them good or tolerable. The new stuff - the China setting, new characters to carry the franchise, plus big-name Hong Kong actors - don't help much either. Basically, this is a movie that fails to reach even its already low expectations. If you have movie money burning a hole in your pocket, go see The Dark Knight again instead.
Brendan Fraser returns seven years after the last Mummy movie, but the movie pretends that he's aged a lot more, as he's since retired and son Alex is now twenty something and played by 26 year-old Australian actor Luke Ford. The 39 year-old Fraser is former adventurer Rick O'Connell, now living in a posh estate with wife-turned-pulp-novelist Evelyn (Maria Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz from the first two Mummy films). The two banter and exchange supposed witty barbs highlighting their satisfaction with the retired life, but both really wish for a return to their adventurous Mummy-slaying days.
The chance for adventure arrives when they're asked to deliver a large jewel to a Shanghai museum. The invitation works for them because A) it's kind of like an adventure, and B) they can visit Evelyn's brother Jonathan (the returning John Hannah), who runs a club in Shanghai. Unfortunately, the jewel is wanted by a bunch of evil Chinese soldiers headed by Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, as it will bring to life the preserved remains of China's legendary "Dragon Emperor", who will take over China and then the world after his untimely resurrection. Anyone who gets in his way must die. Yep, a third-grader could have written this story.
The audience learns of the Dragon Emperor's tale in the droning opening flashback, which also features appearances by Michelle Yeoh as immortal witch Zi Juan, and Russell Wong (who once starred in the Rob Cohen-created Vanishing Son TV series) as her doomed lover. Jet Li essays the Dragon Emperor, who is obviously a stand-in for First Emperor of China, Qin Shi-Huang (a.k.a. Ying Zheng), as both are credited with the creation of the Great Wall of China, plus both lust after immortality. In one of the film's few clever appropriations of history, the famous Terracotta Warriors contain actual soliders, who were mummified in clay along with their beloved Emperor. China doesn't really have mummies, but the filmmakers twist history amusingly to make it possible.
In another fun, though likely inadvertent twist, the Dragon Emperor is basically the same character played by Chen Dao-Ming in Hero - which means in this film Jet Li is playing some guy he tried to kill in another film. Sadly, Li's performance here has nothing on Chen's Ying Zheng, as Li does little more than act smug and evil when he's not riding horses or shouting at people in Mandarin. He also barely appears; other than the opening flashback, Li only gets face time during the final half-hour of the film. For most of the running time, he's a CG-creation that looks more like Chen Dao-Ming than Jet Li. Apparently, Li is on board the film for star power only, as he shows precious little in the acting or martial arts department.
Yes, that's right: Jet Li does very little martial arts in this film. There is one decently choreographed assassination attempt during the opening flashback, which features a blink-and-you'll-miss-him cameo by Wu Jing, but other than that the movie is one long CG orgy. Promise arrives when the Emperor finally faces off against his eternal nemesis Zi Juan, and anyone who's seen Tai-Chi Master would be forgiven their fanboy excitement at the prospect of Li and Yeoh squaring off once more. Sorry, Rob Cohen uses close-ups, numerous cuts, and slow motion to portray their fight, such that any fluidity or intricate choreography that existed is completely removed.
Not that it matters, because Jet Li's real nemesis in the film is not meant to be Michelle Yeoh. Instead, his true foes are Brendan Fraser and Luke Ford, who get over their manufactured father-son conflict and team-up to take down the evil Chinese mummy. The idea that two normal guys can defeat the Emperor is preposterous, as he's immortal and a master of kung-fu, elemental magic, and more. Still, convenience drives the plot of this film, making the Emperor little more than a CG-created robot required for the perfunctory final fight. Jet Li earned a reportedly quite hefty paycheck for Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, but Li's earnings do not translate into an audience payoff.
The biggest audience draw? Perhaps the Yeti. At a key point, Alex's love interest Lin (Isabella Leong, looking somewhat lost in her Hollywood debut), calls to the snowy mountains and a bunch of CG-created Abominable Snowmen jump down from the hills to dispatch the bad guys. It's just more CG in this already CG-heavy movie, but hey, who doesn't like Yeti? They're white-haired cousins of Bigfoot, plus they throw around Anthony Wong like a rag doll.
The film also has John Hannah, who's amusing even though he seems to be acting in an entirely separate film, and the film does boast some unintentional laughter. The highlights: Russell Wong's crappy Mandarin, and an odd mother-son conversation between Maria Bello and Luke Ford that oozes misplaced sexual tension.
Luke Ford looks somewhat like Brendan Fraser, though they should be playing brothers and not a father and son. Frankly, this "family" is totally unbelievable, and Ford shows the charm and screen presence of a smarmy frat boy. Fraser is usually a likable lug, but Alfred Gough and Miles Millar's screenplay makes him annoying, and the banter between he and the miscast Maria Bello crosses the line from unfunny to cringe worthy. Supposedly, Rachel Weisz declined to reprise her role as Evelyn O'Connell due to script problems. Rachel Weisz knows what she's doing.
Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is chaotic, interminable, and a total mess, with little to recommend it besides exceptional brain-dead diversion. The action sequences are messy, there's no sense of peril, and the character scenes are tacked on and terribly unconvincing. Rob Cohen has never been a great director, but some of his previous films have managed some cohesive, workable entertainment. Here, he's the hack behind an obviously studio-propelled product that's so transparent in its desire to earn box-office dollars that it doesn't even feign intelligence or quality. Calling this movie lazy would be kind.
The earlier Mummy films were stupid, but not completely mindless, and the change from Egypt to China only gives the filmmakers another culture to shamelessly raid. Oddly, this film shares a lot in common with the recent Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skulls, as both feature bloated casts, overplayed family dynamics, loose cultural connections, and an over reliance on CG to deliver their thrills. Crystal Skulls at least had memorable characters and decades of audience goodwill to make it an amusing nostalgia trip. Nostalgia is not a factor here. Probably the most memorable thing about earlier Mummy films was Arnold Vosloo's bad guy - and he's not around this time. Series star Brendan Fraser is good for box office, but in all the Mummy movies he's done little more than fill space.
Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is currently scheduled for release in China, but it's shocking that the country's strict film approval board would let ever let this film get within their borders. Not only does it feature supernatural concepts - a usual no-no for any film wanting China release - but it essentially demonizes one of their most prominent historical figures, plus it plays so fast and loose with culture and history that no one in the country should be happy with it. It's a bit of a double standard - the Chinese have messed with their own history in cinema from time to time - but if someone took the time to sue Dreamworks over Kung Fu Panda, then they should have a field day here.
Hopefully, audiences will simply ignore the film because Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is best forgotten - by the paying public, the filmmakers, and most especially the actors, who have all done better work. China's best move may be the one they attempted only a few months ago: stop the movie from entering the country unless the filmmakers make a few cuts. A good two hours of cuts should do it. (Kozo 2008)