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The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” clearly intends to wink at its audience and have a rip-roaring old time, but the writing is so painful and so laborious, smart moviegoers will feel like the joke is on them. A textbook lesson in hackneyed and forced, the latest entry in the most popular franchise ever to so thoroughly rip off the “Indiana Jones” series has little appeal beyond a handful of sumptuous fantasy locales courtesy of Canada and China. For a film with a massive 140+ million dollar budget, the computer-generated effects are sloppy and uneven, despite the fact that a few of them manage to make one forget their digital origin.

Director Rob Cohen takes the reigns from Stephen Sommers (who stayed on as a producer and reportedly as an uncredited script polisher), and he fails to muster his predecessor’s lighter touch with the material. While Sommers mostly managed to construct scenes with narrative clarity, Cohen’s approach is ragged. A few sequences, especially one involving a trio of oddly protective Yetis, manage to deliver on their outrageous promises, but most of the big action scenes eschew suspense in favor of questionably staged battles in which one never really gets a sense of what is going on or where it is supposedly happening. The whole thing is another example of over-edited, junk food cinema.

Alternating between a decrepit family drama that places adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) at odds with his adult son Alex (Luke Ford) and a drawn-out chase involving an ancient Chinese despot (Jet Li) who seeks immortality and world domination after being resurrected, “Dragon Emperor” will pick up a few curiosity seekers eager to check out the movie’s martial arts angle. Very little choreographed hand-to-hand combat is included in the film, though, since the balance of time must be given over to shots of Ray Harryhausen-esque armies of undead soldiers charging into battle.

From the first scenes, “Dragon Emperor” feels slapdash and hammy. Rachel Weisz, who was a breath of fresh air in the stale tombs of the first two “Mummy” movies, has been replaced by Maria Bello. Bello is a sensational actor who has given riveting performances in films like “A History of Violence” and “The Cooler,” but she is miscast and adrift as Evelyn O’Connell. John Hannah returns as Evelyn’s loopy brother Jonathan, but suffers the indignities of playing close-up scenes with a phony looking, airsick yak named Geraldine. Jonathan’s pants literally catch on fire in one scene, and he cries out “Spank my ass!” in what might be the movie’s most idiotic line.

Martial arts fans hoping to see Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh in action will be let down. Foolishly, the moviemakers opt to use chunks of Li’s screen time transforming him into a variety of monsters, even though he is much more interesting in human form. Yeoh manages to bring her usual dignified air to dialogue so silly it would seem more at home in a fourth grade drama production. As Yeoh’s daughter and Ford’s love interest, Isabella Leong is a welcome addition to the cast. Unlike the majority of the other performers around her, she convincingly appears to interact with the fabulous fakery, and any person who can establish rapport with a benevolent group of Abominable Snowmen deserves some kind of recognition.

This review was also published in the High Plains Reader the week of 8/4/08.

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