Mummy, The: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli
Mummy, The: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor Poster

It has been a bad year for Indiana Jones and his knock-offs. In the wake of the lackluster Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we now have the second sequel to The Mummy, called Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. It is easily the worst of the three adventures starring Brendan Fraser as the Indiana-inspired Rick O'Connell. Like many third movies, this one exists purely to make some money from a familiar franchise. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor feels perfunctory and obligatory and, despite the return of several familiar characters, is more like an afterthought than an organic third piece of a trilogy puzzle.

I have heard Tomb of the Dragon Emperor referred to as being "silly fun." It certainly is silly, outdoing both The Mummy and The Mummy Returns in that category. But it's not much fun. There's no joy, no wit, and little in the way of tension. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is chock-full of CGI action sequences that are perfectly capable of boring the living hell out of anyone who doesn't wander off to the snack counter for a break. There are Yeti who look ferocious but act like Ewoks. (They also do something so incredibly stupid that for a moment I thought I'd imagined it. Touchdown!) Don't bother trying to make sense of the plot - to do so would be to risk brain damage. It's essentially a lot of running around until time expires and everything is cleanly resolved. The first two Mummy movies, dumb and derivative as they were, were fun. This one is not.

The film opens with a prologue set in pre-Christ China. In it, we learn of the power lust of Emperor Han (Jet Li) who, after uniting the country under his iron fist, decides to conquer his final enemy: death. To do this, he summons the witch Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) to his side, since it is said that she knows the secret of immortality. Unfortunately, she falls in love with Han's head general and the jealous emperor has her lover executed. In retribution, she curses him and his men, turning them to stone. They are entombed and wait in silence until adventurer and college drop-out Alex O'Connell (Luke Ford), discovers them in 1947. Unluckily, Alex has become a dupe in a plan to resurrect Han. Fortunately, his famous parents, Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn (Maria Bello), are on hand to help him on the quest to keep the emperor from achieving immortality and omnipotence. They are joined by Alex's Uncle Jonathan (John Hannah) and Lin (Isabella Leong), whose dalliance with Alex gives new meaning to the term "May/December romance."

One of the biggest disappointments is what director Rob Cohen does (or, more appropriately, does not do) with the one-on-one confrontation between Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li, two martial arts screen legends. In The Forbidden Kingdom, the filmmakers had the good sense to let Li and Jackie Chan, in their first screen confrontation, go at it for about five minutes, throwing everything at each other except the kitchen sink. Here, Cohen lets Yeoh and Li kick and punch for roughly 30 seconds before deciding it's time to move on to more CGI. The term "underwhelming" doesn't even begin to describe it. It's almost too short to be considered a curiosity.

A problem with giving hunky Luke Ford's Alex so much screen time is that it significantly diminishes Rick. In Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, he's often relegated into standing on the sidelines doing very little that's heroic or memorable. His one-liners are as weak as his action scenes. In the first two Mummy movies, there was no question about the identity of the hero. Here, Alex and Rick share the role and it makes the former seem like an upstart. In the Indiana Jones series, giving Indy a son makes sense because of Harrison Ford's age. But Brendan Fraser is only 39, or roughly the same age Ford was when he made Raiders of the Lost Ark - isn't he a little young to be put out to pasture?

Then there's Evelyn. Admittedly, she is not an iconic character, but it's surprising how big a hole the absence of Rachel Weisz creates. Part of what worked in the first two movies was the playful chemistry between Weisz and Fraser. With all due respect to Maria Bello, who is a good actress, the re-cast is a mistake. Not only do Bello and Fraser fail to ignite a single spark, but her unease with the part never makes us forget Weisz. This isn't Evelyn, it's an imposter. The last time I felt this out-of-synch with a re-cast was Robin Curtis in Star Trek III. Occasionally, re-casting can work (Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Dark Knight), but most of the time, especially when an actor has established himself or herself in a part, it's a failure.

Strangely, for a movie that falls under The Mummy umbrella, there are no mummies to be found. By shifting the action to China, all we're left with are skeletons and zombies (although everyone insists on calling them "mummies"). More often than not, the undead resemble the Three Stooges, a choice that provides occasional moments of low-brow humor that are more funny than Fraser's one-liners. As the villain, Jet Li is considerably less imposing that Arnold Vosloo, a situation that had me hoping for an Imhotep cameo. A lot of Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is like that: inviting comparison to the previous two Mummy movies and not measuring up. Considering that neither of those films can be regarded as more than disposable entertainment, that's not a good thing. For those who enjoy overcooked special effects and boring, suspense-free, hamster-on-a-wheel action, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor might indeed represent "silly fun." For me, it's a disappointing example of bloated excess that should have never left the draft screenplay stage.

Mummy, The: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (United States, 2008)

Director: Rob Cohen
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, John Hannah, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford, Isabella Leong
Screenplay: Alfred Gough & Miles Millar
Cinematography: Simon Duggan
Music: Randy Edelman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 2008-08-01
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1