Monday 15 December 2008

The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor (2008)

Monday 15 December 2008
1999's The Mummy (a remake of the classic Universal horror, CGI'd into an Indiana Jones-wannabe) was a very enjoyable popcorn adventure -- eclipsed by The Phantom Menace and The Matrix at the time. Its '01 sequel, The Mummy Returns, was a dreadful confusion of overblown filmmaking and numbing effects-work. Nobody was hankering for a third movie, but here it comes anyway -- with Rob Cohen (xXx) replacing Stephen Sommers behind the camera, and Rachel Weisz wisely refusing to sully her CV anymore...

The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor finds retired tomb raider Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) married to studious Evie (Maria Bello). He spends his time fly-fishing on their Oxfordshire estate; she's authored two best-selling books about their Egyptian escapades. F course, they're both secretly bored to tears, awaiting another call to action. It arrives soon after their son Alex (Luke Ford) -- inexplicably narrowing the age-gap with his parents -- excavates the tomb of Emperor Han (Jet Li), an ancient Chinese tyrant whose thirst for immortality resulted in him being cursed by the witch Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh) after he betrayed her trust.

After travelling to Shanghai at the behest of the British government, to return the precious Eye of Shangri-La gemstone to the Chinese as a token of goodwill, a ruthless band of Han worshippers intercept the O'Connells and use the Eye to resurrect their Emperor -- who has been encased in terracotta for centuries. The O'Connells reunite with Jonathan (John Hannah), who now owns an Egyptian-themed nightclub called "Imhotep's" in the city, and together they go after Han to stop him gaining immortality by bathing in the water of Shangri-La.

There follows a Shanghai street chase with firework explosions (the first and best action sequence), an airplane ride with a vomiting Yak, a family of protective cat-like Yeti, an avalanche, a three-headed fire-breathing dragon, and a battle between the Terracotta Army and the skeletons of Han's enemies he buried beneath the Great Wall Of China. Plenty of bang and FX, but very little character, heart, or laughs. I marginally preferred this threequel to the awful Mummy Returns (faint praise), but the comedy and bubbly relationships are but a pale shadow of the '99 original.

Brendan Fraser looks faintly bored, and is stupidly overshadowed by screen-son Luke Ford (a bland newcomer, positioned to assume Fraser's mantle, considering he was stupid enough to sign for two more sequels); Maria Bello exhibits no Weisz-like chemistry with Fraser (as a lover or otherwise), is more English thistle than rose, and struggles to maintain a stilted English accent; John Hannah has plenty of bumbling energy, but no decent jokes to tether them to (you know you're in trouble when your funniest scene is being covered in Yak puke); Jet Li goes through the motions as the clichéd baddie (obscured by digital clay half the time), Isabella Leong is this instalment's Oded Fehr character, Lin; and Michelle Yeoh's role as an immortal witch is trite and predictable. For martial arts lovers, the prospect of a Li versus Yeoh fight might have been some consolation, but their scrap is poorly choreographed and barely lasts two minutes.

The thin script, by Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, is primarily concerned with shoehorning in Chinese icons -- the myths (immortality, Shangri-La), the supernatural (dragons, Yeti, the "five elements" -- an underused idea, incidentally), the history (the Great Wall, the Terracotta Army), and locations (Shanghai, the Himalayas). It all comes at the expense of a decent story that's just a clichéd, re-tread of the other films with a Far East face-life. There's even another reckless, crazy pilot!

The characters are all bone-dry, there's little sense of mounting tension or fear, Emperor Han's back-story lacks the sympathetic streak of Arnold Vosloo's bandaged-baddie, and memorable dialogue is limited to cutesy references to the earlier films ("you guys are like mummy magnets!") In terms of comedy, they actually stoop low enough to have a cheesy "record needle rip" interrupt a scene (not once, but twice!), and all the one-liners are blunt and unfunny.

The few positives lie exclusively in technical details: the costumes are excellent, the set-design is decent, and the CGI is more consistent than The Mummy Returns'. Indeed, the Ray Harryhausen-inspired battle between two armies of the undead is good fun (the film's funniest moment is a CGI skeleton accidentally knocking his comrade's head off), and there are several FX touches that I enjoyed elsewhere -- like the molten glow inside the cracks of terracotta horses, and a big avalanche (Cohen's second after xXx.) But, there's certainly not enough eye-candy to make you forget how dreadfully boring and awkward the story, characters and storyline is. This is one mummy that deserves to be buried and forgotten about, with no chance of resurrection.

Universal Pictures
Budget: $145 million
114 minutes

Director: Rob Cohen
Writers: Alfred Gough & Miles Millar

Cast: Brendan Fraser (Rick O'Connell), Maria Bello (Evelyn Carnahan-O'Connell), Jet Li (Emperor Han), John Hannah (Jonathan Carnahan), Luke Ford (Alex O'Connell), Isabella Leong (Lin), Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (General Yang), Russell Wong (General Ming Guo), Liam Cunningham (Mad Dog Maguire), David Calder (Professor Roger Wilson), & Michelle Yeoh (Zi Yuan)