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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (review)

Bury It

I’m a big big fan of 1999’s The Mummy and, well, a fan of 2001’s The Mummy Returns. This bears repeating because it’s vital to understanding how deep my disappointment is with The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the third, and now I hope final, installment in the franchise. I wasn’t expecting a lot from this one, not with the departure of creator, writer, and director Stephen Sommers — and not with the departure of Rachel Weisz, though this was of slightly less concern — and I was expecting to have to justify and rationalize how entertainingly goofy I was expecting to find it. I fully anticipated recognizing that I would be overly generous in my estimation of it, and not caring.
But even with bar set low and my unconditional love set high, I cannot freakin’ believe how cruelly Tomb rips out my geeky little heart and stomps on it. All the magic, all the life has been surgically excised from this charmless exercise in overblown action that is, what’s worse, utterly clueless about how overblown-actiony it is. With the 1999 film, Sommers gave us a wonderfully cheeky, smartly snarky sendup of action comedies that was also itself a wildly fun example of the genre. (the best parodies always manage to be excellent examples of what they’re making fun of). But you can’t even point to Tomb as the kind of thing that Sommers was toying with, because this new flick utterly fails to realize it’s riddled with clichés and hence — again, even worse — also fails to understand that clichés do actually serve storytelling purposes. In other words, if you’re going to steal, do something with your ill-gotten gains: don’t just stand there gawping at your stolen treasure.

And so as Tomb opens, setting the stage in ancient China with an evil emperor (Jet Li: The Forbidden Kingdom, War) who desires immortality so that he can conquer the whole world, we have Michelle Yeoh’s (Memoirs of a Geisha, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) witch informing us in voiceover that we’re about to see a mythic battle between good and evil. In pretty much those very words, and with no hint that anyone involved — director Rob Cohen, screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar — appreciates that unless this kind of thing is offered with a soupçon of snappy irony, all it does is make us roll our eyes and supply our own snark, perhaps in the form of a “Ya think?” or a “Well, duh.” The Mummy winked at this kind of thing; Tomb doesn’t even know that it’s something to be winked at.

That attitude should have been stolen from the earlier films, but it was left on the vault floor in favor of ripping off simple plot points, which only emphasizes the lack of imagination at play here. The emperor gets pissed off because his general (Russell Wong: Twisted) dares to steal the witch from him, after the emperor had decreed that no man but him would touch her… just like all the stuff with Imhotep and the pharaoh’s concubine that got the plot rolling in 1999. The witch cursed the emperor, and he and his army turn into those famous terra cotta statues you’ve seen pictures of, and are buried for all eternity, or at least until the O’Connells can dig him up.

I would have thought that Gough and Millar — the guys who wrote Spider-Man 2 and Shanghai Noon, the latter of which shares a certain tone with the 1999 film — would have been the perfect team to write a Mummy movie, but it turns out, not really. All they’ve done is lift parts of the story wholesale from the previous films and — worser again — from the Indiana Jones saga, with one puzzle piece early in the movie here that they found in the Well of the Souls and one plot “twist” late in the movie that is a downright embarrassingly direct theft from The Last Crusade. Everything else is forced and awkward, like the relationship between Rick and Evelyn O’Connell (Brendan Fraser [Journey to the Center of the Earth, Crash] and Maria Bello [The Jane Austen Book Club, Thank You for Smoking], who cannot, alas, adequately stand in for Weisz) and their son, Alex (Luke Ford) — though this could perhaps be blamed on the fact that the poor kid has aged 20 years since the last film; he’s supposed to be 19, and looks and acts 30.

Small comfort can be found, then, I suppose, in the fact that we cannot hear half the dialogue over the racket of the incoherent action sequences. Which is a bit of a surprise, since Cohen has previously given us movies that are, while stupid, at least entertainingly stupid (such as Stealth and The Fast and the Furious). Perhaps the director realized how unentertainingly stupid the Tomb script was, and choose to try to bury it under video-game CGI — replacing the beautiful painterly CGI of the earlier films. He doesn’t quite succeed in that attempt, but that’s probably his smallest crime here.

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MPAA: rated PG-13 for adventure action and violence

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
  • Rykker

    Drat. I had talked myself into wanting to see this after I calmed down from the loss of Rachel, and noticed that it was Maria who was stepping-in; believing that she might just have the chops to do the role justice.

    I wonder if I can talk the person with whom I was going to see this into seeing The Dark Knight, instead…

  • amanohyo

    Kinda reminds me of the Shreks. By the time the third movie rolled around, the series had completely morphed into a poor example of what the original was parodying.

  • Barb Gorczyca

    Not surprised on this one. The trailer looked a mess, a fake Evie and the behind the scene show was a mishmash. Seems like #3 is a bad number (e.g., Spider-Man and Rush Hour).

  • Woof. Our local movie critic gave this flick a whopping one star out of four.

    Stephen Sommers proved with Van Helsing that his Mummy movies were a fluke and that he should retire. The fact that he’s not directing this one still doesn’t change the facts that he has used up the one good idea he had and that everything now is just recycled from his earlier works.

    Rachel Weisz should be commended for having the good sense to recognize crap when she saw the script. And Brendan Fraser should be ashamed for going along with this.

    Just remember, though: This is the beginning of August. The movies are going to get worse and worse right up until Labor Day weekend, which is one of two annual dumping grounds for crap movies (the other being early January).

  • JoshDM

    What, did you forget that The Scorpion King existed?

    Because I tried to.

  • JoshDM

    Clayj, don’t you know already that Brendan is a sell-out? His involvement with that horrid-looking “Journey to the Center of the Earth” thing was a sure sign to me.

  • “Clayj, don’t you know already that Brendan is a sell-out? ”

    i don’t know if that’s quite fair to Brendan (Fraser) [i don’t know him well enough to be on a first name basis]. he may just be trying to work — we don’t know what kind of parts he’s being offered. he’s a decent actor (Gods & Monsters, and Blast From the Past) but i think his looks are just too blocky for the current bland leading man, and a little too mature and hunky for the man-child anymore… if he’s just trying to work in the craft that is his livelihood… well, more power to him. even if he makes several more crap movies, he probably has a good chance of coming around to the top (or at least, the middle) of his profession.

  • The Scorpion what now?

  • Kristen

    thanks for breaking it to us gently. I, too, wanted to love this movie. I even proudly declared I would see it, even after all my friends predicted it as a disaster, and that I would enjoy every terrible moment.

    Now, it doesn’t really look like I could justify the gas -let alone the ticket price.

  • Just got back from it. I almost walked out after the first 20 minutes, which were without a doubt the worst opening scenes for a movie I’ve ever endured. Once the action starts it’s not as hard to sit through, but the whole thing is a mess. I need to quit letting my father convince me to accompany him to these shitty movies.

    One positive about Tomb of the Dragon Emperor: it make me realize how good Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was.

  • FrankS

    Very disappointing. First off, Brendan Frasier and Maria Bello don’t have any on-screen chemistry at all. Second, Brendan didn’t look old enough to be Luke Ford’s father. In fact, they looked more like bratty brothers than parent and offspring. That made the scenes where Brendan scolds Luke look really ridiculous. And with so many scenes ripped off from the various Indiana Jones movies, it was pretty embarrassing to sit through without cringing.

    There are no extras during the closing credits, so sprint to the exits and save yourself from any further exposure to this mess of a flick.

  • Rykker

    I wonder if I can talk the person with whom I was going to see this into seeing The Dark Knight, instead…

    WooHoo! I’ve been spared. I get to see TDK.

  • Pharlain

    Just saw it. I’ve gotta say I was horribly annoyed for the first twenty minutes or so. The familial relationships felt forced, I really missed Rachel Weiz, I didn’t really buy the whole father son estrangement thing, where did Alex’s adorable accent go and why did he suddenly sound like a cowboy, and when did Evelyn and Rick become spies? But then I realized something. These movies are essentially updated Jone’s movies. And I’m cool with that. I honestly liked the first two more than Indy movies (Do I have to give up my nerd cred?) and their loving nods to the genre were just what the doctor ordered in the early nineties. And then we got to the first chase scene (why are first action scenes so great these days? The first car chase in the new Indy was bloody brilliant) and I realized… this is the Temple of Doom. It’s the really silly, kinda out of sync iteration of the series. The characters don’t feel completely like themselves or at least they feel like themselves in a less serious situation. It’s like a side plot made into a whole movie, the wacky hijincks that went on between their real adventures. And while Most people seem to think Doom is the worst of the trio it’s always been my favorite. And once I accepted Tomb of the Dragon Emperor as this series’s doom, I found myself seriously enjoying it. That being said The Mummy Returns will always be my favorite and the chemisty between fraser and Bello wasn’t really there. But still I enjoyed this movie a lot more than the recent indy film.

    On a side note I read a really interesting interview with Fraser in the Onion a few weeks ago and they talked about what a brilliant green screen actor he is. How he has a knack for looking at a point without looking through it. A talent he uses to great affect in a lot of his movies like Monkey Bone, Mummy, and Journey (a movie I loved). I’ve always thought that he’s a great actor but this seemed like a really good point about his specific acting skills. nd Bronxbee I do think you’re right about his looks making him hard to cast. He’s also much taller than most screen actors, about six four, which is a factor.

  • Clayj: one could legitimately argue that Sommers’ “one good idea” was to recycle from earlier works – works by other and often better directors.

    Personally I wasn’t at all impressed by the second film, so I certainly shan’t bother to see this one. I like a good lump of action-adventure, but there’s a fine division for me between taking the thing on its own terms and having fun with it (the first Pirates of the Caribbean) and self-consciously poking fun at it in a mean-spirited way (which is what I have felt from Sommers’ works, and even more from Sky Captain).

  • Sounds like Tomb of the Dragon Emperor met everyone’s expectations… generally Brendan Frasier tries too hard to act, so you can tell he’s acting

  • I agree, I think most people can appreciate most popcorn movies for their popcorn appeal, but this one was impossible to like.

  • Drave

    Terrible, terrible movie. I secretly sort of dug the Yeti, though.

  • MaryAnn

    Ack, the Yeti were one of the worst aspects. Just ridiculous. And this in a series that has thrived on the ridiculous.

  • Drave

    Hey, I didn’t say the Yeti were good, just that I secretly liked them. Then again, I have had a soft spot for Yeti ever since I played Kingdom of Loathing. Plus, I grudgingly respect any deus ex machina that is so utterly, completely, and shamelessly random. I mean, she just pulled those things out of her arse. “Oh yeah? You want a piece of me? Here, have some YETI!” Out of all the possible ways to get out of that mess, summoning a trio of Yeti is honestly something I would never have thought of.

  • MaryAnn

    It’s something no self-respecting screenwriter would have thought of. But there probably aren’t many of them left in Hollywood.

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