The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Starring Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, Luke Ford, Michelle Yeoh
Directed by Rob Cohen
I’m a big big fan of 1999’s The Mummy and of 2001’s The Mummy Returns.
This needs saying, 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’d find it. I anticipated being 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 utterly clueless about how overblown-actiony it is.
With the 1999 film, Sommers gave us a wonderfully cheeky, smart-and-snarky sendup of action comedies that was also itself a wildly fun example of the genre. 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 that it’s riddled with clichés and hence also fails to understand that clichés do actually serve storytelling purposes.
If you’re going to steal, do something with your ill-gotten gains: Don’t just stand there gawking at your stolen treasure.
And so as Tomb opens, setting the stage in ancient China with an evil emperor (Jet Li) who desires immortality so that he can conquer the whole world, we have Michelle Yeoh’s witch informing us, in voiceover, that we’re about to see a mythic battle between good and evil.
In those words are hints that those involved — director Rob Cohen, screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar — failed to appreciate that unless this kind of thing is offered with a soupçon of snappy irony, all it does is make us roll our eyes. The Mummy winked at this kind of thing; Tomb doesn’t even know 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) dares to steal the witch from him, after the emperor had decreed that no man but him could touch her — just like all the stuff with Imhotep and the pharaoh’s concubine that got the plot rolling in 1999. The witch curses 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 — who wrote Spider-Man 2 and Shanghai Noon, the latter of which shares a certain tone with the 1999 Mummy — would have been the perfect team to write a Mummy movie, but no. All they’ve done is lift parts of the story wholesale from the previous films and 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.
Perhaps the director realized how unentertainingly stupid the Tomb script was, and chose 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.