The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) – Fantasy Film Review

After popular but uninspired THE MUMMY and THE MUMMY RETURNS, there was never much chance that THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR was going to turn out to be a great film, but a new setting, the introduction of a new villain, the recasting of the female lead, and the presence of Rob Cohen in the director’s chair suggested that sequel would be at least a slight change of pace. Although the formula remains much the same tanna leave concoction as before, there are indeed few new wrinkles on the dessicated old corpse, just enough to make this pleasant popcorn movie for viewers seeking action and adventure without too many chills and thrills. As before, the last thing this MUMMY movie wants to do is actually scare anybody; it’s all good clean fun obviously patterned on the INDIANA JONES movies, but without the gung-ho pro-American jingoism.
The irony here is that the previous two MUMMY films filled a gap because there had not been an INDIANA JONES adventure for years. This time, TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR finds itself sharing a summer with INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL. Even more interesting, both films feature a similar plot device, with the returning hero – now older and maybe a little slower – sharing his latest adventure with his son. Of course Hollywood loves this kind of thing because it allows the casting of a younger flavor-of-the-month actor to appeal to teen ticket-buyers, but it is funny to contemplate the fact that Brendan Fraser has obviously aged much less than Harrison Ford, yet he somehow has a son (Luke Ford as Alex ) who looks much older Indy’s Mutt (Shia LeBeouf).
The story has Alex (who, like Mutt, has dropped out of school) unearthing the titular Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (the great martial arts star Jet Li). Parents Rick and Evenlyn O’Connell (Fraser and Maria Bello), bored with domestic tranquility, jump at the chance to get back into a new adventure; unfortunately, they are double-crossed into delivering an artifact that allows a Chinese general to revive the Emperor. Help arrives in the form of Lin (Isabella Leong), one of those beautiful martial arts babes who kicks ass and inevitably falls for the white hero. The relationship gets off to a rocky start when she tries to kill him to prevent his unearthing the Emperor, but the two let bygones be bygones with admirable open-mindedness (or maybe just the screenwriters thought it was a plot point not worth pursuing). Evenlyn’s brother Jonathan Carnahan (John Hannah) is reluctantly roped into the adventure, not because he is much good in a throw-down with a revived Chinese emperor, but because the film needs its comic relief. Lin turns out to be the immortal daughter of the immortal sorcerers Zi Juan (the great martial arts star Michelle Yeoh), whom we saw in the prologue, falling in love with the Emperor’s general. When the Emperor sends his Terra Cotta Warriors1into battle, Zi Juan revives the corpses of the Emperor’s enemies, including her lover, resulting in a climactic brawl of SPARTACUS proportions.
As several American movies have done for the past fifteen years, TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR tries to recreate some of the excitement and beauty of Hong Kong martial arts fantasy films. (One suspects this is the reason for the presence of Cohen, who directed DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE story.) It achieves this goal to some extent, especially in the prologue that tells the Dragon Emperor’s back story, but neither the action nor the romance the best of the films it imitates, and the typical Hollywood reliance on computer-generated imagery hardly helps.
You have to give the film credit for reteaming Yeoh and Li (who had previously appeared in the wonderful TAI CHI MASTER), but what is the point of casting a dynamic performer like Li and then hiding him behind a patina of CGI for most of the movie? Likewise, what is the poing of having him face off against Yeoh if the fight choreography is going to be a simple by-the-numbers routine unworthy of their talents? (FORBIDDEN KINGDOM may not be a great film, but at least the confrontation between Li and Jackie Chan was staged the way it should have been – like a major set piece that had to live up to audience expectations).
Perhaps some studio executives were afraid that their American stars would be upstaged; in any case, the film feels a bit crowded (like a big-budget equivalent of those old Euro-trash movies in which each country contributing cash to the budget had to have one prominent star on screen to guarantee the investment) and what should have been a major emotional climax (Zi Juan reuniting with her dead lover) simply never happens. The film simply cannot be bothered with doing justice to the characters when the whole point is simply to get the undead armies clashing.
The CGI action scenes are not quite as annoying as they were in the previous MUMMY movies, but they are no mor convincing. A guest appearance by a handful of Yeti is remarkable for the way that the creatures seem to have wandered in from the equally unconvincing GOLDEN COMPASS – no one involved with the film seems the least concerned that the live-action characters are interacting with creature that look like an avatar on your PS3.
Fraser is good-natured as ever – always a likable presence even when his roles are undemanding, and Bello steps into the O’Connell role quite nimbly.2 Li and Yeoh are worth watching, but Leong can’t sell her character as anything other than a stereotype. Hannah is funny, even though the jokes are growing old. Ford is handsome and charming, but he doesn’t register very strongly; still, he gets one of the film’s few truly moving moments when he tells his estranged father that he cannot imagine the world without him. (The moment works because it slightly undermines the film’s “Invincibility Factor,” in which Alex – like the audience – expect his father to take a beating and jump right back into the action; the thought that he could actually be mortally wounded is too terrible to even imagine.)
On a final note, THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR joins the short list of “Mummy” titles that do not actually include a mummy. (BLOOD FROM THE MUMMY’S TOMB would be another contender, although this might be subject to debate.). The Dragon Emperor, if anything, appears to be petrified rather than mummified, but perhaps this is being a bit to pedantic. Perhaps someday, Universal Studios (which created the Mummy as a movie monster way back in 1932) will get around to making another movie with a real Mummy in it. Until then, we will have to settle for their using the title as misleading label for their own ersatz Indiana Jones adventures.
THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR (2008). Directed by Rob Cohen. Written by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, based on character created by Stephen Sommers (uncredited) inspired by the 1932 screenplay by John L. Balderston (uncredited). Cast: Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, John Hannah, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford, Isabella Leong, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Russell Wong, Liam Cunnimgham, David Calder, Jessey Meng, Tian Liang, Albert Kwan.
FOOTNOTES:

  1. Terra Cotta Warriors have been found in archeological digs, so it is easy to understand why the screenwriters included them here. Nevertheless, they should have realized that the phrase “Terra Cotta Warriors” is slightly inadequate when it comes to striking fear and awe in the human heart. One wonders if they will be confronted by Wicker Soldiers and Garden Gnome Battalions. 
  2. The film makes a good joke about this. Evenly is first seen from behind, face hidden, at a book store where she is reading from her latest “novel,” which is obviously a thinly disguised version of the adventures she and her husband went through in the previous films. When asked by a fan if her literary heroine is based on herself, Bello reveals her face to the camera for the first time and say that was a “completely different” person altogether.
     

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