Skip to main content

You guys are like mummy magnets!


The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
(2008)

What’s worse, a terrible film or a dull film? There’s always the possibility that a terrible film will end up in the “so bad, it’s entertaining” category. But a dull film is generally a chore to sit through. You become distracted, listless, or nod off. I could barely remember anything about this, apart from the Yetis. The third Mummy film isn’t a horrendous mess in the same way as the second, but it is really boring. On the balances side, so much of Mummy Returns is painfully bad that if came down to a choice of which to suffer again, Dragon Emperor might be the less damaging option.

Despite (or because of; people had the chance to forget how bad Returns was?) Dragon Emperor was a significant (and surprise) hit. Not in the States, where it did about half its predecessors’ business (inflation-adjusted), but worldwide where the total was four times that gross. Brendan Fraser, who has never been a major draw and receives more column inches regarding his level of baldness than his movie career, suddenly found himself with two big hits that year (the other being Journey to the Centre of the Earth). But the status of the production suggested an “anything will do” cash in. Director Stephen Sommers did not return, saying he didn’t think he’d have the energy for another installment. And then Rachel Weisz opted-out, citing her recent birth and script concerns. Nevertheless, the script had been in development since 2005, seeing John Hannah’s character added along the way.

As with Returns, the son of Rick and Evelyn was given a central role; the timeframe leaps 13 years to 1946. Now Alex (Luke Ford) is an archeologist on a dig in China and his parents have reluctantly retired to a stately pile. It isn’t long before they reunite, along with Jonathan, to face a new threat.

The switch of location to China is one of the few original aspects of the film; inspired by the Terracotta Army, the prologue sees Jet Li’s warlord (the titular character) imprisoned by Michelle Yeoh’s sorceress, due to being a nasty piece of work, along with his army (transformed in said Terracotta Army). It’s unfortunate that this sequence is quite good, as it gives a false impression of what’s in store. Jet Li’s Mummy is possibly even less inspired than Arnold Vosloo, and Li doesn’t seem remotely engaged by the material (when you can actually see him in non-CGI form, that is). Yeoh is always appealing but there’s not much here for her, even when the film takes in Shangri-La.

Evelyn has been recast in the form of Maria Bello, a decent actress who seems uneasy here; maybe it was concentrating on the (competent) English accent, but her performance is a bit off (I’m not going to make out that Weisz was some kind of irreplaceable feature of the series, as the character was terribly thin and at best you could say she dampened down the more grating aspects). One of the movie’s few witty moments has Evelyn at a book signing, asked if the novel’s female character is based on her. She replies, “No. I can honestly say she is a completely different person”.

More damaging is Luke Ford, playing Alex as an American this time (and only thirteen/fourteen years younger that Fraser and Bello) and doing it utterly charmlessly. I wouldn’t say he’s quite as annoying as the character’s earlier moptop incarnation, but you wonder if the producers didn’t deliberately intend to piss of the audience. The same year’s Indiana Jones movie at least had the excuse of an aging star who might need to pass the baton to a successor should the series continue. But Fraser hadn’t even turned 40 when the Dragon Emperor came out. And already they’re replicating Sean Connery’s death scene from Last Crusade for him.

Did I mention there are Yetis? Friendly Yetis. I quite liked the Yetis.

The big point in favour of Dragon Emperor is that its look is far superior to Sommers’ movies. The colour palette lacks a post-production sheen, the physical locations are more tangible, there’s a sense of scale; this feels like an adventure movie that actually visited exotic climes, rather than one that spent an extended period on a soundstage (Crystal Skull).

The downside is that Rob Cohen, Sommers’ replacement, is such a disengaged filmmaker. It’s not just a case of director-for-hire; he imbues no energy or vitality into his material. No matter Sommers’ numerous faults, that’s something you could never accuse him of. Cohen’s soulless spectacles (not that kind) are not only personality-free, they are mechanical to the point of actively discouraging involvement with the material. He has the dubious claim to fame of introducing the most unlikely of mega-franchises with The Fast and the Furious but his CV consists mostly of the forgettable (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Dragonheart) or tedious (Daylight, XXX, Stealth). He did much more interesting work as a producer during the ‘80s, truth be told.

Unlike Indy, which staggered on to a fourth installment, this looks like the final ending for Universal’s cheerful knock-off series. There was talk of a further adventure, but the property has now progressed to reboot territory; Jon Spaits (Prometheus) is attached to script it and (a warning sign) Len Wiseman to direct. If not for the latter’s action-orientated involvement, I might have held out hope for something hewing closer to the spirit of Universal’s classic horror roots.

** 

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

If a rat were to walk in here right now as I'm talking, would you treat it to a saucer of your delicious milk?

Inglourious Basterds (2009)
(SPOILERS) His staunchest fans would doubtless claim Tarantino has never taken a wrong step, but for me, his post-Pulp Fiction output had been either not quite as satisfying (Jackie Brown), empty spectacle (the Kill Bills) or wretched (Death Proof). It wasn’t until Inglourious Basterds that he recovered his mojo, revelling in an alternate World War II where Adolf didn’t just lose but also got machine gunned to death in a movie theatre showing a warmly received Goebbels-produced propaganda film. It may not be his masterpiece – as Aldo Raines refers to the swastika engraved on “Jew hunter” Hans Landa’s forehead, and as Tarantino actually saw the potential of his script – but it’s brimming with ideas and energy.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Just because you are a character doesn't mean that you have character.

Pulp Fiction (1994)
(SPOILERS) From a UK perspective, Pulp Fiction’s success seemed like a fait accompli; Reservoir Dogs had gone beyond the mere cult item it was Stateside and impacted mainstream culture itself (hard to believe now that it was once banned on home video); it was a case of Tarantino filling a gap in the market no one knew was there until he drew attention to it (and which quickly became over-saturated with pale imitators subsequently). Where his debut was a grower, Pulp Fiction hit the ground running, an instant critical and commercial success (it won the Palme d’Or four months before its release), only made cooler by being robbed of the Best Picture Oscar by Forrest Gump. And unlike some famously-cited should-have-beens, Tarantino’s masterpiece really did deserve it.

Hey, everybody. The bellboy's here.

Four Rooms (1995)
(SPOILERS) I had an idea that I’d only seen part of Four Rooms previously, and having now definitively watched the entire thing, I can see where that notion sprang from. It’s a picture that actively encourages you to think it never existed. Much of it isn’t even actively terrible – although, at the same time, it couldn’t be labelled remotely good– but it’s so utterly lethargic, so lacking in the energy, enthusiasm and inventiveness that characterises these filmmakers at their best – and yes, I’m including Rodriguez, although it’s a very limited corner for him – that it’s very easy to banish the entire misbegotten enterprise from your mind.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

I am forever driven on this quest.

Ad Astra (2019)
(SPOILERS) Would Apocalypse Now have finished up as a classic if Captain Willard had been ordered on a mission to exterminate his mad dad with extreme prejudice, rather than a mysterious and off-reservation colonel? Ad Astra features many stunning elements. It’s an undeniably classy piece of filmmaking from James Gray, who establishes his tone from the get-go and keeps it consistent, even through various showy set pieces. But the decision to give its lead character an existential crisis entirely revolving around his absent father is its reductive, fatal flaw, ultimately deflating much of the air from Gray’s space balloon.

Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict... breeds catastrophe.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best

Poor Easy Breezy.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
(SPOILERS) My initial reaction to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was mild disbelief that Tarantino managed to hoodwink studios into coming begging to make it, so wilfully perverse is it in disregarding any standard expectations of narrative or plotting. Then I remembered that studios, or studios that aren’t Disney, are desperate for product, and more especially, product that might guarantee them a hit. Quentin’s latest appears to be that, but whether it’s a sufficient one to justify the expense of his absurd vanity project remains to be seen.

The adversary oft comes in the shape of a he-goat.

The Witch (2015)
(SPOILERS) I’m not the biggest of horror buffs, so Stephen King commenting that The Witchscared the hell out of me” might have given me pause for what was in store. Fortunately, he’s the same author extraordinaire who referred to Crimson Peak as “just fucking terrifying” (it isn’t). That, and that general reactions to Robert Eggers’ film have fluctuated across the scale, from the King-type response on one end of the spectrum to accounts of unrelieved boredom on the other. The latter response may also contextualise the former, depending on just what King is referring to, because what’s scary about The Witch isn’t, for the most part, scary in the classically understood horror sense. It’s scary in the way The Wicker Man is scary, existentially gnawing away at one through judicious martialling of atmosphere, setting and theme.


Indeed, this is far more impressive a work than Ben Wheatley’s Kill List, which had hitherto been compared to The Wicker Man, succeeding admirably …