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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.

** 

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