During an ambiguous time in history, an ambiguously named Chinese emperor (Jet Li) has ambiguous plans to conquer everything -- even death. To that end, he enlists the aid of a witch named Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh), but after he betrays her trust, she curses the emperor and his entire army, turning them into terra cotta statues.
Centuries later, in 1946, husband and wife explorers Rick and Evelyn O'Connell (Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello) have retired from the action and espionage biz and live in boring domestic bliss. The prospect of one last adventure, however, takes them to China, where they're surprised to discover their now-adult son, Alex (Luke Ford) -- who's aged 20 years since 1999 -- on a mission of his own.
Alex has uncovered the emperor's tomb and plans to display it in a museum, but an unscrupulous Chinese general named Yang (Anthony Wong) raises the mummified emperor in hopes that he can be the ruler's right-hand man when he conquers the world. But first, as a means to that end, the emperor must seek out the key to the immortality he's so long desired. The O'Connell family, of course -- including Evelyn's hapless brother Jonathan (John Hannah) -- sets out to stop him, with help from the immortal Zi Yuan and her equally immortal daughter, Lin (Isabella Leong).
The End Product
I didn't think it was possible, but The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is even more dunderheaded than The Mummy Returns. It combines the second movie's manic action sequences and overdone digital effects (I'm surprised "Green Screen" wasn't listed as a co-star.) with even blander characters, worse acting and writing that only a 10-year-old could appreciate.
I know that films like this aren't meant to be Schindler's List, but even summer popcorn movies have a standard to uphold. Story-wise, Dragon Emperor is such a rehash of the previous two films that you could take a 10-minute bathroom break at any point and know exactly what you missed. It trots out all the expected hallmarks of the adventure genre (Plane crash? Check. Booby traps? Check. Rope bridge? Of course.) and smothers them with special effects to mask the material shortcomings.
The mythology in this fantasy world seems made up on the fly just to provide more opportunity for digital green screen work. Why have a regular mummy when we can make a SUPER MUMMY with the ability to shape-shift and control the elements? And let's throw in some Yetis! They work well with the 6-to-9 demographic. The story is full of overly intricate legends (They have to find an artifact that will lead them to a temple that will point them to Shangri-La, which will contain the Pool of Eternal Life, which the emperor wants to use to become eternal, which grants him the power to shape-shift, which...blah blah blah.) that make for stunningly bad, explanatory dialogue like "If the emperor places The Eye up there, all will be lost!"
If it all sounds cartoonish, that's because it is. The humor that made the first Mummy such a joy has degraded into slapstick and juvenile buffoonery, with pratfalls and gags about yak vomit. With material like this to work with, it's no surprise that the acting is substandard, but series newcomer Ford is a particularly lifeless presence. He feels like the result of a producer "note" to give the movie some youthful sex appeal, but he comes off as a limp hero who takes time away from the real star, Brendan Fraser. Fraser is the only redeeming part of the movie, his goofy leading-man likeability (along the lines of Will Smith) rising above the drivel. The gifted action antics of Hong Kong stars Li, Yeoh and Wong, meanwhile, are sorely underutilized.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor represents the worst of Hollywood overkill and dumbing down. It's a thick-headed film trying desperately to fit into a cookie-cutter, mass-marketing mold and offers nothing fresh or interesting for anyone out of grade school. If it's aiming to be a kids' movie, it should at least be rated PG instead of PG-13, because 13-year-olds are too sophisticated for this.
- Acting: D+ (The lame dialogue can hinder any actor, but Bello and Ford in particular struggle.)
- Direction: D (Soulless, with dizzying camerawork and a knack for making non-stop action excruciatingly dull.)
- Script: F (The story is a generic rehash of the previous films with gaping plot holes and humor that is beyond corny.)
- Gore/Effects: C- (Although competently done, there's an overkill of digital effects, which makes the action cold.)
- Overall: D (Could be the worst blockbuster of the year.)
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is directed by Rob Cohen and is rated PG-13 for adventure action and violence. Opening date: August 1, 2008.