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.