The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor Review
There are varying ways in which one can view a trilogy, or indeed any continuing franchise of movies. Some say that they are to be treated as any other film. The opposing view is that they are to be judged by different criteria, i.e. they will progressively lack impact and thus need bigger bangs and they will also follow the laws of diminishing returns until they no longer become financially viable to make. Thus in many ways they cannot be held as accountable for the public's increasing lack of interest in them. Personally, I sit somewhere in between these two theories, as, whilst I can understand that a part of a serial, be it TV, movie, book etc must not repeat too much of the already explained universe and characterisation, it must be able to deliver the story in such a way that it is not overly reliant upon the weight of the back story that has preceded it. Some big blockbusters of recent years have, in my view, excessively played upon the appeal of seeing much loved imagery that viewers grew up with simply being realised on the silver screen. They play on nostalgia and the gimmick of a differing depiction of what has come before, without actually adding anything to the experience - I can't tell you how many times I've heard someone tell me how great a comic book character looked on screen, without being able to reiterate much of the plot, or even if the film as a whole was any good.
“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” falls squarely within the realm of diminishing franchise fare I'm afraid. It doesn't have such recognisable characters (Indiana Jones) or such a definite universe (Star Wars) for it to be a success purely off the back of the appearance of either. The Box Office figures show that, for a third in the series that has been released 7 years after the previous instalment (which itself was only 2 years behind the first), the film still had a healthy return and the source material is far from being spent as a pool of profitability. “The Mummy” (1999) raked in a cool $415 million from a reported $80 million budget, which the sequel upped, in terms of both outlay and income by being made for $98 million and collecting $433 million for its troubles. This most recent release has, again, upped the expenditure to the tune of $145 million, which for a film made 7 years later isn't entirely unreasonable, but is the first to fall behind its predecessor in terms of take, making a slightly lesser amount at $393 million. Still not an amount to be sniffed at - any film franchise that can garner a profit of $250 million must surely be considered a big hitter, regardless of the greater success of those that came before it.
So, onto the film itself; the opening of the film is a marvellous prologue that tells the back story of the first Emperor of China (as depicted here by Jet Li) and his warmongering totalitarian ways. He hungers for power and will do anything to get it. The shots of China are epic and this brief ten minutes I found an absolute joy to watch. As a long time fan of Eastern cinema, the sight of Jet Li (“Fearless” 2006) and Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” 2003) - here playing a witch who is drawn in to aid the Emperor's plan of immortality, is never unwelcome and when their skills are enveloped in the kind of budgetary gloss on offer here, they are all the more pleasing to see. The dashing hero archetype from the first two films, Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) is back, but not quite in the way one would expect. He is settled down in the Oxfordshire countryside trying to come to terms with a quiet life that doesn't involve battling the undead. This he is doing with great discomfort, as is his wife, now a successful author who has written about their daring adventures in a work of thinly veiled fiction. It's all played for light whimsy and is a nice juxtaposition from the barbarism of the prologue set in ancient China.
However, here we hit our first hitch. Whilst in the previous two instalments, the role of Evelyn O'Connell was brought to the screen with great aplomb by the talents of Rachel Weiss, here she is evidently missing. Reportedly not satisfied with the script, she declined to reprise her role and as such it was offered to Maria Bello (perhaps best known in recent years for her co starring roles in “A History of Violence”, alongside Viggo Mortensen, and the remake of “Assault on Precinct 13” - both 2005). She is far from being bad in the role, it just skews the universe somewhat, and not for the better. It doesn't help that she is entering the role of an English woman that was previously inhabited by an English actress. Bello's accent may be a fine attempt for an American but ultimately the over enunciation starts to seem all the more apparent in the stilted delivery of lines in even the most dangerous situations that call for a rapid tongue. Perhaps many would consider the role not as key a constituent part of the previous film's formula, but the absence of Weiss's apt turn for comedy reveals this to be very much the opposite. Bello unfortunately isn't helped in her plight a great deal by the script either, which labours almost painfully at its attempts at humour.
It is here where the main problem has to lie. A change of actors can be deftly handled in many a way, but a change of writer and director cannot be so easily engineered. With the previous films being both written and directed by Stephen Sommers, there was, understandably, a coherence to them and an ease between direction and script. They matched each other well and neither pulled rank, so to speak, with both complementing each other nicely. Here, Sommers steps aside to allow Rob Cohen to direct. Alarm bells may start ringing for those of you who recognise the name as that of the man who helmed “The Fast and the Furious” (2001), “xXx” (2002) and “Stealth” (2005). Now, Stephen Sommers' C.V. isn't the greatest plethora of artistic visions, but he has at least proved himself capable of creating a traditional adventure romp with his Mummy based creations. Once you add his loss as a director, to his no show as writer, things start to make a lot more sense as to where the chemistry has gone. Into his scribe's shoes, enter the twin figures of Miles Miller and Alfred Gough, who wrote “Shanghai Noon” (2000), “Shanghai Knights” (2003) and TV's teen superman show Smallville.
So we have an action director who is very much of the Don Simpson “high concept” school of thought and a pair of writers who are tasked with putting words into the mouths of pre-existing characters, known well by the audience. The fact that the results are a tad jarring is hardly a great surprise when these circumstances are considered. What doesn't help matters is the insertion into the mix of the Mummy bashing couple's now grown up son. There have been many a comparison drawn between this trilogy and that of “Indiana Jones”, but things at this point are starting to become a little worrying. Luckily it doesn't follow the same exact route as that of “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” but the convergence is certainly odd. It doesn't end there though as the introduction of paternal issues, elixir of life and the dissolving of a wound all seem very reminiscent of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989), but I digress. The role of the, now adult, son is depicted by Luke Ford (you'd be forgiven for saying “who?”). Once again, we are given an all too grating element as they have tried their best to create a mini Rick O'Connell (please don't say he'll take over the franchise, as Shia LaBouef is rumoured to be for the Jones family). The fact that, in reality, he is merely 13 years younger than Fraser and a mite more than 14 from Bello is only further compounding his less than synergistic presence in the midst of the pre-existing formula for success already lain down by Sommers.
There are positives though, the Mummy himself, always a big part of any such event film, is wonderfully brought to life by Jet Li. He imbues him with great malevolence and a brooding nature that is fitting with Arnold Vosloo's doomed Egyptian incarnation of the bandaged undead. Those hoping to see Li in his finest form for much of the film though will be sorely disappointed. Apparently, due to time constraints, Li was only available for a limited time, so for much of proceedings we are not given the opportunity to watch a fine actor, but rather a CG terracotta version of him. Thus, the viewer is left somewhat deprived of his presence and the moments when he does appear simply serve to emphasize the hole he leaves when reduced to a clay figure with glowing eyes. Thus, alongside the loss of Odeh Fehr as Ardeth Bay from “The Mummy” (1999) and its sequel, we are deprived of any real gravitas that evens out that of the dashing hero figure, instead just given a mini Rick in that of his son. The one pleasing return though, obviously including Fraser's, is that of Evelyn's dimwit brother Jonathan, played by John Hannah. The manner in which he is hooked into the mix is somewhat patronising (they are headed to China and lo and behold Jonathan just so happens to be now living in Shanghai, running a nightclub) his comic turns are one of the few threads that run through all three films and give us a welcome bedrock that doesn't shift. At times he is underused and I'd far have preferred the time lavished upon Luke Ford to have been reallocated to Hannah, beggars can't be choosers. Even if the humour falls to the low of yak vomit it's a pleasant change of pace and one that is actually within the realms of funniness for a change.
Continuing with the theme of positives, to see Anthony Wong (“Infernal Affairs” trilogy, “Beast Cops” 1998, “Full Contact” 1993, “Hard Boiled” 1992,) appear as a mad leader of a paramilitary, hellbent on reviving the long dead Emperor, was another unexpected bonus. However, once again, the screen time given to him is far below that which one would expect, given his standing in Eastern cinema. For a director who talks so constantly in the extras of his love for all things Chinese, there is scant little evidence that he has taken a different path than the average western action film when depicting Chinese themes/actors. They are woefully under utilised, perhaps never more so than the final fight scene between Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li. Each with a sword in hand, they are to battle to the death. With the huge film budget, one would expect an epic fight, but instead it appears more of a whimper, with the action being shot in such a way that it appears more of a choreographed dance (as it is in real life) than a fearsome duel. The other action scenes are fairly well done and fit in with the series trademark shooting of mummies, but it all comes a little too late in the film to make one really feel like this were a rollercoaster ride.
To sum up, this will no doubt still be essential viewing for the most ardent Mummy fans but, having liked the previous two, I cannot recommend it as a continuation of the viewer's previous enjoyments. A change of locations, Mummy types, director, writers and a key member of the cast all appear to have been a stretch too far to continue the thread of jolly adventure that healthily ran through this series so whimsically. The moment many will know this fact will be when the yetis make their debut - don't ask!