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Mummy, The: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) Print E-mail
Friday, 01 August 2008
In 1999, director Stephen Sommers transformed the rough plot of the 1932 horror classic “The Mummy” into a giant, effects-laden, action-packed and pretty dopey adventure film. It was entertaining enough, but the 2001 sequel, “The Mummy Returns” was a disaster. With another director-Rob Cohen-at the helm, and a screenplay by writing team Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (“Smallville,” mostly), there seemed a chance that “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” might be big if silly fun like “The Mummy.”

Alas, it's more like “The Mummy Returns.” It charges along at a frantic rate, covering ground (England, Shanghai, the interior of China, the Himalayas), tossing in another action sequence whenever the cast begins talking too much. Trouble is the talk is lame and the action scenes are among the worst shot and edited in movie history. Each sequence consists of very brief takes (i.e. from cut to cut), shot in a wild profusion of angles, stuffed with extreme closeups and featuring far, far too many hand-held shots. All this is supposed to cram these sequences with energy and excitement; in reality, it reduces them all to utter chaos, just about impossible to follow. And when you can't track an action sequence, you can't care about the issues or what happens to the characters.

Although he has yet to make a good movie, in the past, Rob Cohen has made a few acceptable films-“Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” “The Fast and the Furious.” But most of his films are junk, like “The Skulls” or “Stealth.” This third in the new Mummy series is more junk. It's attractive-looking junk, with elaborate sets, vast desert vistas and reasonably good CGI-generated Himalayas. And the cast has been agreeable elsewhere; star Brendan Fraser, as Rick O'Connell, veteran of the first two Mummys, is back, as is John Hannah, who plays his shady-dealing, greedy brother-in-law Jonathan Carnahan. But Rachel Weisz has been replaced in the role of wife/sister Evelyn by Maria Bello. This is accomplished with a wink at the audience; she wrote best selling novels about their Mummy escapades (I'll bet you can figure out the titles). When someone asks if the fictional heroine was similar to her, she smilingly admits “I can safely say she's a completely different person.” Treasure that. It's the last semblance of wit in the movie.

An extensive flashback opens the film. Emperor Han (Jet Li) of China wants to rule the world, and has trained himself in magical arts toward this end. His closest friend and primary general is Ming (Russell Wong), who's uncertain about Han's ambitions. These include enlisting the aid of powerful sorceress Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh), who knows how to find the library full of magical secrets that can grant immortality. (Meanwhile, Ming builds the Great Wall of China; this is historically absurd, like having George Washington deliver the Gettysburg Address.) Han lusts after Zi Juan, but she's got the hots for Ming, so Han executes him and buries him (along with thousands of others) under the Great Wall. Zi Juan curses Han and his entire army, then flees. In her wake, the emperor and all his men turn into terracotta statues.
In 1947, Evelyn is suffering from writer's block, Rick from inactivity (sexual and otherwise). Their son Alex (Luke Ford, from Australia), introduced in “The Mummy Returns,” is somewhere else. The movie tries to make the estrangement between Rick and Alex amount to something, but it's just a few tossed off words, and has no impact on the plot. Fraser's amusingly discomfited but eager to bond with his son, but mostly he's reduced to running, jumping and playing off unseen menaces (on green screen). He's a veteran at this; just a couple of weeks ago, his “Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D” opened; that movie set its limitations, worked within them, and came out reasonably entertaining. This Mummy movie is an overblown, bloated effects extravaganza that scarcely even requires actual actors.

Alex has been working with his father's old pal Prof. Roger Wilson (David Calder) in trying to uncover the tomb of emperor Han. They do, finding a funeral chariot with a statue of Han at the reins, four horses, and a sarcophagus in the back. After they take this to a major museum in Shanghai, Rick and Evelyn arrive at Jonathan's nightclub “Imhotep's,” where Rick and Alex instantly quarrel. At the museum, Rick struggles to make nice with his son while the same agile martial arts expert, with whom Alex tangled at the excavation (which he opened with the unlikely archaeological tool of dynamite), turns up, leaping about nimbly. This turns out to be Lin (Isabella Leong,) clearly destined to be Alex's sweetie when the dust all settles.

Lots of stuff happens very quickly, including the introduction of avaricious General Yang (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) and the semi-revival of Han. He's now a desiccated corpse encased in terracotta, which occasionally shatters, revealing the ruined face within. Then the terracotta regrows. Are you following this? The horses drawing the chariot are also living terracotta, with big glowing cracks in their ceramic hides.

Yang and Han flee through the streets of Shanghai (which seem endless), pursued by everyone else still alive in a fireworks truck. This is not as much fun as it may sound, because of this crappy, MTV-style editing. You keep losing track of the characters, you can't follow the relationship (in space) between the truck and the chariot, and bystanders by the thousands barely react to this eye-popping spectacle charging by them on the nighttime streets of a big city.

There's also something about a jewel contained in an avocado-sized globe of terracotta snakes. This fits into the top of a temple pyramid in, of all places, Shangri-La. (No credit is given to “Lost Horizon” or James Hilton.) It will show the way to the Pool of Eternal Life. Han is still after immortality. You also need to pay attention, if you can, to Mad Dog Maguire (Liam Cunningham), another painfully colorful old friend of Rick's. He has a plane.

We're reunited with Zi Juan, immortal herself, and mother to Lin, who's also immortal. (This leads to a single line from Alex, joking about dating older women-2000 years old, in this case.) Everyone ends up in the Himalayas heading for Shangri-La; this eventually involves a rope suspension bridge (you knew there had to be one, didn't you?), avalanches, Yetis (called Abominable Snowmen 5 years before the term was coined), explosions, a little martial arts (badly shot and edited), and like that there. The Yetis are entirely CGI, though motion capture was clearly used; they're white, which Yetis have never been reported to be (they're usually reddish brown), but they're also helpful to our heroes.

Even when everyone follows the diamond's path to Shangri-La and the Pool of Eternal Life, the plot keeps desperately plunging onward. (And somehow involves TWO planes. Where'd the other one come from?) Han bathes in that Pool, gains even more powers, including the ability to turn into Ghidrah the Three-Headed Monster (that's what the fire-breathing dragon seen briefly looks like) and some kind of Kong-oid hairy beast with horns. But mostly he's Jet Li, smiling a surprisingly effective evil smile. But Jet Li, one of the most graceful and skilled of martial artists, rarely gets even a moment to strut his kung fu stuff.

The noisy climax involves two armies of the living dead, one Han's terracotta warriors, the other led by the revived Ming, the victims of the Great Wall. (There actually are no mummies in sight.) Cohen and his team seem confident that the sight of two armies, thousands of individuals, charging at each other is a spectacle the audience will eat with a spoon. Maybe some will, but by now, summer-movie audiences are surfeited with an excess of CGI effects; this just looks like more expensive computer time. There's a sense of scale, to be sure-hard not to be with aerial views of two huge armies clashing-but no sense of excitement or involvement. The effects team entertains themselves by having amusing bits (undead decapitated soldiers looking for their heads) around the edges of the frame, but that's not enough to overcome the familiarity and repetition, and general lack of imagination. Clearly they used Ray Harryhausen's “Jason and the Argonauts” as a reference point, but Harryhausen's seven skeletal swordsmen were-and still are-a lot more exciting than these shots of thousands of perfectly-rendered CGI figures. (The filmmakers also lift a shot of thousands of plummeting arrows from Jet Li's “Hero.”)

The movie seems awfully cavalier about the important icons of the religions of non-Westerners. An extensive scene takes place in a cave with a huge reclining statue of Buddha. Isn't this like staging a kung-fu scene in front of the Wailing Wall in Israel?

“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is a big-scale, messy summer action movie. No one seems to have cared very much about coherence, logic, grace or style; it's all jumbled chaos with a few shouted “funny” lines. Action movies with these elements can be entertaining, and when they are, they jazz audiences, get people bouncing up and down on their seats, big silly grins on their faces, relaxed and excited at the same time. But not here. This movie grinds you down, wears you out, wastes the talents of skilled performers like Brendan Fraser and Jet Li, uses up a lavish budget, involves several countries (it's a US-Chinese-Canadian and maybe also German co-production). And what audiences are given isn't a tenth as entertaining as a Chuck Jones Road Runner cartoon, and doesn't have even that much intelligence, historical honesty and imagination as a Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge adventure.

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