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The Mummy:
Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
by Max Allan Collins
(Paperback from Amazon)
. "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor"

For once, boxoffice receipts reflect the failures of a big summertime offering, and this one's poor opening isn't just because the target audience is being distracted by overpowering competition "Ironman," "The Dark Knight." It's more because of its style of bland hokiness and, perhaps, in subject similarity to another ancient-tomb action piece breaking boxoffice records. "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull." Still, there are a few things worthy of praise.

Production values, action and special effects. In the latter department, Mummy III is on a par with the best fantasy thrillers, and capably up to its large scale concepts--like a 10K-man army turning to dust and reanimating, high-speed chases through nighttime Shanghai streets with a full bag of CGI-enabled stunt daredeviltry (that goes on way too long and clumsily), cleverly devised death traps to impale or smother unwanted visitors approaching the entombed Han Emperor (Jet Li) awaiting awakening after a 2000-year old curse. All of which visual work is so professionally achieved that it points up the mediocrity of the narrative it's designed to serve.

The Mummy series does have a right to this kind of fantasy turf, having scored some $800 million with its first two installments. But, there's not enough here to justify a renewed effort, except the calculation that it would recapture the attention of a new generation of kids. That might have been true if the story had been developed with the same standards as the technology.

The tone of the piece is part of the problem. Domesticated adventurers Rick and Evelyn O'Connell (Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello filling in for Rachel Weisz) are not-too-convincingly in "happy" retirement after beating Nazis and the Scorpion King. Now, as members of the idle rich, they take up residence in the resplendent comforts of a fine English mansion, complete with phony accents. If we didn't know what "regular guys" they were, we'd think they were pretentious. In any case, it's all part of the fantasy life of two well-heeled, more than a little affected, high class elites.

On a phony pretext, an official asks them to come out of retirement in order to personally deliver a priceless artifact to a gent in Shanghai. Doing so, of course, embroils them into the aforementioned curse, the realization that "friends' loyalties" can't be relied upon, and the discomforting discovery that their son Alex (not especially impressive Luke Ford)--stepping audaciously into his father's shoes--is already there, tracking down the tomb and the magic. He's both a competitor for his parent's legacy and a handy sidekick.

The entire family assumes they are impervious to whatever superhuman creatures and attacks come as a consequence of their intrusion on a tomb that houses a potentially immortal destroyer of mankind, which exaggeration has all the involvement of a game over high tea and all the tension associated with that ceremonial custom. Constant Comment, anyone? Any regard one might have for the adventurers is mostly a matter of how much action and spectacle tickles your fantasy.

A sequel improves its chances of doing well if it retains the creative team of the original and tops it in some way. But, with only one of its stars seeing (or being) fit to carry it on, (Fraser) hopes, here, are on a tight rope, shaky at best. As exceptional as Maria Bello is ("The Cooler"), and despite a recent interview avowal that she's always wanted to play the romantic lead in an action pic, her adoption of fearless action chick rings with disappointment. She adds little with her high-moxie, British-tinged involvement, and her replacement of Rachel Weisz does nothing to save the piece.

Fortunately, Bello's prior work tells us it isn't because of a lower skill level than her predecessor, so lay the fault at the feet of director Rob Cohen, and his inability to see writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar's screenplay as a draft in need of a rewrite, especially given the competition this year. It seems as though the mindset was to swamp 'em (the young viewers especially) with enough sensory overload to dull the demand for story and character worthiness.

Not much else escapes the trap of unimpressiveness, including Jet Li's appearance as the sociopathic Dragon Emperor thirsting for immortality for himself and his army. He's also out of sorts because the woman he wanted, magical Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh), went for his handsome general instead. Besides, this guy's understanding of the modern world is highly suspicious, and Li's repetition of an entombed figure (The Monkey King in "The Forbidden Kingdom" which hardly required a change of wardrobe), is getting old. But, it gives new meaning to the term, "type casting."

Get these now!
The Soundtrack
The Mummy (1999) Blu-ray DVD
The Mummy Returns (2001) Blu-ray DVD

The one highlight in casting and writing adequacy comes with Michelle Yeoh as immortal Zi Yuan, whose every appearance snaps the attention. Beautiful and a preserve of stature and integrity, she lights up the goings on with a hint of dramatic purpose and interest. Not quite enough to recommend the movie, but treasure enough to reward the adventurous.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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