Dir: Rob Cohen . US. 2008. 107 mins.
Nine years have passed since The Mummy, a moderately-charming period action-adventure yarn starring Brendan Fraser, but it seems even longer after viewing Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor, a dispiritingly witless sequel with very little personality but a lot of frenetic comic banter and numbing set pieces.
With producer Stephen Sommers, who wrote and directed the original as well as its 2001 sequel, handing the reins over to director Rob Cohen (XXX), this third instalment may attract franchise loyalists, but it seems unlikely to unearth the buried box office treasure excavated by the previous two movies.
This Universal release enters a marketplace still dominated by The Dark Knight, although its kid-friendly tone may help the film find some commercial breathing room. Still, it'll take some serious repeat business to match The Mummy's $155m domestic haul, let alone The Mummy Returns' $202m take. Foreign audiences have boosted the earlier two films to larger grosses in international markets, and the inclusion of co-stars Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh seems calculated to maximise overseas business, especially in Asia, where the film is set. The series' brand familiarity will keep this Tomb lively, especially in ancillaries, but not stellar.
In 1940s Shanghai, married adventurers Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn (Maria Bello, filling in for Rachel Weisz) come out of retirement to help their explorer son Alex (Luke Ford) who has unwittingly resurrected an ancient Chinese emperor (Jet Li) intent on continuing his reign of terror.
Though a continuation of the action from The Mummy and The Mummy Returns - even going to the trouble of bringing back several supporting characters - Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor can't help but feel removed from the franchise's previous editions. Beyond hiring Cohen as director (and the writing team of Alfred Gough and Miles Millar to pen the screenplay), this new film's most visible shakeup is Weisz's departure as Fraser's love interest Evelyn. While Bello is a fine actress, she simply lacks the old-fashioned movie-star radiance that helped make The Mummy's gee-whiz romantic subplot such corny fun.
That's not the only problem with the relationship, though: the potentially intriguing conceit of positioning Rick and Evelyn as a bored married couple longing for the bygone exhilaration of their life-threatening mummy adventures quickly turns into a standard dysfunctional-family melodrama as they try to defeat the emperor while reconnecting with their distant son. Hoping to find a substitute for Rick and Evelyn's flirty, contentious banter from The Mummy, Cohen and his writers pair Alex with a lovely Asian assassin (Isabella Leong), but neither their dialogue nor their limp chemistry can compensate.
While The Mummy was mostly a competent repurposing of the Indiana Jones films' swashbuckling action and old horror movies' shriek-worthy scares, its chief selling points were Sommers' playful acknowledgment of his plundered sources and the cheerful enthusiasm of his two leads. But with Weisz gone and Fraser pushed into more of an anonymous hero role, Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor's emotional core is as lifeless as the scores of perfunctory CG effects dispensed throughout the film without much sense of wonder.
Cohen's direction plays up the busyness of the action set pieces, incorporating wirework, slow-motion and unfunny one-liners in such uninspired ways that the sequences labor to generate excitement. As a villain, Jet Li has minimal impact since his character spends much of the movie as a decomposing statue trying to discover the path to immortality. And when he is in human form, Li's placid features too easily give off the impression of boredom, which seems to tally with what's going on around him.
The Sommers Company
Director of photography