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The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor   C-

Universal Pictures / Relativity Media

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Rob Cohen
Writer: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, John Hannah, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford, Chau Sang Anthony Wong, Isabella Leong.

Review by Rob Vaux

It's never pretty when a durable franchise reaches the end of the road -- its magic gone, its entertainment value drained by too many trips to the same well. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor compounds that state of creative exhaustion by planting the seeds of something more interesting and then failing to do anything with it. Instead, it awkwardly crams the series' characters into an ostensibly workable concept without understanding how they might function within it. Not only does it make for a bad movie, but it provides evidence of a much better one if only more of an effort had been made.

Having squeezed the classic Egyptian mummies dry during the first two films, the producers now shift things to the Far East where an evil emperor (Jet Li) lies cursed for all eternity in his ancient tomb. After uniting China beneath his despotic rule, he bargains with a learned sorceress (Michelle Yeoh) for the power of immortality. But when he betrays her and murders her true love, she transforms him into a terracotta statue, along with all of the warriors in his army. There's fair amounts of cool to that scenario, especially with Yeoh classing up the place like she always does. Filtering the basic Mummy blueprint through Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gives it an interesting new visual style to play with, along with a modicum of longing and betrayal infused into both Yeoh's and Li's characters. Terracotta warriors are pretty cool too, and their glowing, volcanic eyes grant them appropriate amounts of menace when they go on the warpath during the movie's second half.

The trouble with all that is how to include the O'Connells -- the series' ostensible heroes whose self-depreciating swashbucklery has always made previous films worthwhile. Brendan Fraser's back as Rick O'Connell, doing his best with a script that can't think of a single interesting thing for him to say. Two-fisted spouse Evey is along as well -- with Maria Bello filling in for the absent Rachel Weisz -- and while she doesn't recreate the chemistry that her predecessor shared with Fraser, she's certainly having more fun than Weisz did in the last outing. Her good-for-nothing brother is here (John Hannah, the only returning cast member besides Fraser), as well as the O'Connell's grown son Alex (Luke Ford), who discovers the Emperor's tomb and unleashes another go 'round of "rule the universe from beyond the grave" shenanigans.

But as Li's emperor rises from his coffin and Yeoh's immortal witch braces herself to stop him, it's not clear how the franchise's protagonists fit into the equation. They feel very much like afterthoughts, moving according to Yeoh's dictates and unable to invest the action with any energy of their own. They unleash the creature inadvertently, through the machinations of others rather than their own motivations or desires. And because there's so many of them -- with a number of additional hangers-on thrown in for good measure -- Tomb of the Dragon Emperor quickly becomes too crowded to let any single character find his proper rhythm.

A depressing lack of energy further compounds the problem. Oh, director Rob Cohen throws in plenty of gratuitous mayhem -- chases through Shanghai, epic battles at the Great Wall, some fun with a tribe of yeti -- but it often feels dull and perfunctory rather than zippy and enjoyable. Cohen depends on his cast to make up the difference, but the appalling script gives them nothing to work with beyond some shockingly leaden exposition. Ford makes little impression with a badly underwritten character, while Hannah just cashes his check and rattles off howlingly bad jokes which sounded much better in earlier adventures. Fraser and Bello certainly give it the old college try, but there's only so much they can do with meaningful looks before they actually have to open their mouths and give voice to the dreadful dialogue.

Simply put, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor just isn't trying very hard. The first two Mummy pictures were never high art, of course, but they showed an enthusiasm for their pulpy universe which granted them an unpretentious charm. This version seems to believe that re-signing Fraser and changing locales is enough. The rest of the time, it coasts on autopilot, exerting enough effort to maintain basic coherence and not one iota more. I know that dragging old franchises out of mothballs is all the rage these days, but quality control still counts for something. All the CGI skeletons and shots of Shangri-La in the world won't matter if the movie can't find a heart. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor hubristically assumes it can survive anyway, relying on nothing but tattered memories to fill the void.

Review published 07.31.2008.

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