The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Warrior (2008)
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the third film in the once popular Mummy franchise, is facing an uphill battle. It’s been a long seven years in between films and some, like myself, would argue that the franchise is already creatively exhausted. This stuff is the brainchild of writer/director Stephen Sommers (Van Helsing), who decided he would rather make a movie based upon an action hero than rehash mummies (see you this summer, G.I. Joe: The Movie). In comes director Rob Cohen who has given the world such cinematic abominations like XXX, Stealth, and The Fast and the Furious. Surely this was the proper artist to re-energize a semi-dormant franchise. The results are about as unexceptional as you’d expect.
In 1947, Rich O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Evie (Maria Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz) are in retirement from adventure seeking. They live at a palatial estate. Their son Alex (Luke Ford) is in college except they do not know that Alex is really surveying ancient tombs in China. The lad has stumbled across the massive tomb of Han (Jet Li), China’s first united emperor. Han was a ruthless warlord that conquered all. He punished Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) for falling in love with one of his generals and not the mighty emperor. Zi Juan managed to cast a spell on the evil emperor that trapped him in metal. And he sat undisturbed in his tomb for 2,000 years until Alex came along. Eventually the spirit of Han is released and some Chinese military officials wish to serve their departed emperor. Han is seeking the location to Shangri-La to bathe in the pool of immortality, and then he will awaken his army and continue his quest for world domination. The Far Eastern exploits bring the O’Connell family unit together to save the world yet again.
The first film was a cheesy, campy tongue-in-cheek adventure that managed to be consistently entertaining. The second film retained the same fun and humorous atmosphere, though it subscribed to the “bigger is better” theory of sequels and ramped up all the action to a cartoonish degree. Seven years later, the third Mummy movie is a complete bore. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor feels like two movies sewn together; ancient Chinese warlords and treasure-hunting archeologists do not come across as a good fit. The terracotta warriors are a great source for an imaginative tale, but this is not it. So Emperor Han has mastered the elements of fire, water, earth, metal and wood (when did wood become an element? I don’t see that one on the periodic table) and the guy can also turn into giant monsters like a three-headed dragon. The writers of this Mummy entry have goofed by making the villain too powerful. Yeah he can be slain by a magic sword (there’s always something magic-y) but this is a foe that can control oceans, water vapor, clouds, rain and snowstorms, ice shards, and that’s just with one element. I must confess that I cannot fathom Han getting too much use from the wood element. On top of that, he can transform at will into ferocious creatures, so what is the point of turning back into a tiny human? Why would anyone fight hand-to-hand when you could fight as a 30-foot monster of your own design? The problem with making the villain too powerful is that when they do not take advantage of their clear advantage, then the villains just look stupid. “The Dragon Emperor” looks stupid for fighting as a 5′ 6″-sized man instead of a killer dragon. Which would you fight as? At least the Mummy from the other films had limitations.
Even worse than being incomprehensible and dumb, none of the action sequences are thrilling or exciting. The action sequences are fairly sub par, resorting to shootouts and the occasional car chase. At least a car chase through the streets of Shanghai during Chinese New Year takes advantage of the location, allowing Rick and Evie to use firecrackers like missiles. The martial arts work is poorly choreographed and poorly presented thanks to some butchered editing. This is one of the worst edited big-budget films of recent memory. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor seems to be making it up as it goes. There are moments where characters will state where they need to travel to and then in the next second they’re preposterously there. Someone talks about the path to the hidden land of Shangri-La and then the next moment, hey, there they are. How did these places remain hidden for centuries? Very little makes sense in this movie. I’m not asking for complete believability in a film involving immortal bad guys and ancient spells, but at least let me able to follow along. I felt like I could tag along with the first two Mummy films and I had fun to a certain degree, but this time I felt like I was being dragged. I won’t even go into great depth about the appearance of yetis except to reveal that there is a moment where one yeti dropkicks a Chinese soldier over a gated wall and another yeti raises his arms straight in the air, signaling in football terms that it is indeed “good.”
Once again it all comes down to an all-out CGI battle between Han’s CGI army and the CGI zombie opponents buried under the Great Wall of China. The second Mummy movie ended in a similar fashion, and frankly I’ve become bored with the CGI armies clashing en masse unless I’m emotionally invested in the story. The effects work isn’t too fancy either. Most of the CGI creatures look flimsy and there’s nary a sense of wonder for a movie dealing with awesome supernatural forces.
The cleverest moment in the entire film involves the departure of Rachel Weisz. The Oscar-winning actress decided that she had had enough rumbles with the undead and bowed out of reprising her character of Evie. Smart move, lady. The film opens with Evie reading to an audience from her adventure novel based upon her encounters with a certain mummy. A woman asks her if the book’s female heroine is based upon the real-life Evie. She closes the book, smiles, and says in Bello’s first close-up that, “No. I can honestly say that she is a completely different person.” It’s all downhill from there for Bello, whose terrible British accent veers wildly to the point that she sounds like eight different kinds of Brits inhabiting one mouth.
The Mummy franchise is not where I go looking for parental drama. I understand that the 2001 Mummy sequel introduced Rick’s son, but why did this movie need to be set so far ahead in the future? The only reason this movie is set in 1947 is so that Alex can be like a twenty-something adventurer. The Mummy Returns was set in 1933 and Alex was eight years old, so by use of basic math he is now 22. There is no other prominent plot point, character revelation, or action set piece that relies on the date being 1947. Okay, so we’ve arbitrarily aged the kid, so surely the film will present some parental dilemma. Nope. The closest the movie gets to capitalize on Alex’s advanced age is pushing Rick to acknowledge his son’s accomplishments. The film’s idea of exploring family dynamics is a passing statement about making sure to express your love. Nothing is really gained by inserting the familial connection between Rick and Alex, who just as easily could have been a non-blood related character.
The inherent issue with an older Alex is that Fraser and his son look about the same age. Fraser has remarkably aged very little over the course of nine years since the first Mummy movie; sure there’s a few facial lines and a hardness that wasn’t there, but this man clearly looks like he is in his late 30s. Alex looks like he’s in his mid-twenties and the actor, Ford, is actually only 13 years younger than Fraser. It just doesn’t work at all. It looks like Rick and his younger kid brother, not his son. But lo, I think I have figured out the true reason behind position Alex as a younger, dashing version of Rick O’Connell, dispatcher of mummies. Fraser’s three-picture deal was fulfilled by this mediocre movie. If the producers want to have further mummy and non-mummy escapades, they have targeted Alex as their leading man of derring-do.
I like Fraser, I like him in these kinds of movies, but even he feels like he’s running out of gas with Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The location switch from Egypt to China fails to give the franchise a new kick. The Chinese martial arts material bookends the movie and seems out of place, let alone poorly designed. Jet Li must have had a great time cashing his check because the kung-fu master appears for like 15 total minutes as himself. The lackluster action, questionable plotting, cardboard characters, and dearth of enjoyment make this a sequel a potential franchise killer. The tongue-in-cheek energy and cheesy fun of the other movies is completely absent. You can forgive stupid when it’s fun, but stupid and boring is a deadly combination for a huge effects-laden action movie. Hopefully The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor will serve as proof that bad jokes, bad visuals, bad editing, bad plotting, and bad accents do not somehow go vanish because of lingering goodwill from previous films. This is one movie that should have stayed buried.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Posted on January 24, 2009, in 2008 Movies and tagged action, bad movies, brendan fraser, jet li, maria bello, michelle yeoh, period film, rob cohen, sequel, supernatural. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.