The general rule is that the more sequels a film spawns, the crappier they are. Take “The Mummy” (1999). It had a cheesy B-film feel to it with an Indiana Jones vibe. Set in Egypt, it contained some romance, laughs and high adventure. It was entertaining summer fare that introduced us to Oded Fehr. (Yowza.) Not wanting to tamper with a sure thing, writer/director Stephen Sommers reteamed Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn (Rachel Weisz) and had them, again, combating Imhotep (Arnold Vosloo), the mummy who refused to stay dead in the aptly titled “Mummy Returns.” Taking the romance a bit further, this story finds Rick and Evie as husband and wife, and parents to a pre-teen named Alex (Freddie Boath). Still keeping the ladies happy, the film brought back Fehr and added eye candy wrestler-cum-actor Dwayne Johnson as Mathayus the Scorpion King. I wouldn’t say that “Mummy Returns” was bad, per se, it just wasn’t “The Mummy.” For me anytime I see the words “marriage,” “romance,” or “child” in my action-adventure film, I start to shudder.
It’s been seven years since “The Mummy Returns” and six since “The Scorpion King,” so apparently someone decided that it was time to revisit the “Mummy” franchise. Set in 1946, which is 13 years after “Mummy Returns” and 23 years after “The Mummy,” “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” has Rick and Evie (now played by Maria Bello) as adventure business retirees. Instead of fighting scarab beetles, sandstorms and pissed off mummies, they pass their days relaxing in their English stately home. He’s taken up fly fishing and she, uh, sits around waiting for tea time. Both are pretty much bored rigid, so when asked to go to China to deliver a mammoth-sized diamond, they accept. This results in a reunion, of sorts, as China also happens to be where their college-skipping son (Luke Ford) has found the entrance to the tomb of the first Chinese emperor (Jet Li).
Just in case you didn’t know anything about him, the film tells us that he can control the five elements, was a cruel megalomaniac, whose Great Wall is filled with the corpses of thousands of workers, and was obsessed with immortality. So obsessed, in fact, that when he found out that a witch, Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh), was capable of keeping him alive forever, he sent for her. Yes, she can do what he wants, she says, but she needs a spell book, and it’s in a monastic library. Sending her with his general (Russell Wong) to retrieve it, the emperor warns his commander that this woman will be his. But the attraction is too strong, and the two fall in love and consummate their relationship. When the emperor finds out about this double cross, he takes his revenge on the lovers. But Zi Juan has the last “word” on the matter, quite literally, and she casts a spell that turns the emperor and his soldiers into terra cotta. A power mad man never stays down, though, and thanks to the mammoth diamond and some double crossing, a Chinese official (Anthony Wong) and his scar-faced sidekick revive the emperor and his minions. As usual, it’s up to the O’Connell family to save the day.
“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” henceforth known as “Mummy 3,” was on my radar from the minute I saw an early trailer. Jet Li. Michelle Yeoh. Terra cotta soldiers coming to life battling the undead builders of the Great Wall. I mean, does it get any better than this? Uh, yes, it does. A whole lot better. Many, many things went wrong, so let me count the ways. First, Sommers is no longer at the helm; Rob Cohen is. I’m not saying that Sommers is any kind of filmmaking genius, but he’s certainly more bankable (and talented) than is Cohen, who has directed a long list of cack, including “Dragonheart,” “The Skulls,” “XXX,” and let’s not forget “Stealth.” (I would also add “Fast and the Furious” but it has its fans.)
Second, when Weisz decided to bow out of this film, why didn’t the powers-that-be just say that her character was on a sabbatical? We didn’t need to have Evie in this film, not at the cost of putting another actress in Weisz’s place. And whose bright idea was it to cast Bello? She is horrible in every way, shape and form. Her dialect and performance border on caricature. I felt embarrassed for her. Aw-ful! Third, why did they recast Alex? The character is supposed to be in his early 20s and since he sounded English in the second film, we can assume he’s going to sound English again. Uh no. The actor playing him is Australian but sounds American. Why I’m not sure. Furthermore, at 27 years old, Ford is too old to play Fraser’s son. (Fraser is only 13 years older than Ford.) Some actors can play younger, sure, but this guy can’t. Standing next to Fraser – who himself must have found the Fountain of Youth because he hasn’t aged since “The Mummy” – Ford looks more like his brother than his son. The timelines just don’t add up, which makes it just one huge distraction.
Fourth, you don’t cast Li and Yeoh and not have extended fight sequences. You just don’t. Unless, of course, you’re making “Mummy 3.” I think the stars cross feet once. Blink and it’s over. Also, I admit that Li isn’t the best actor in the world, but I like him, so I’m blaming someone else for this performance, which is essentially perpetually pissed off and, well, wooden. Fifth, as we got closer to the film’s release, the studios included more and more of the “wow” scenes, including some pretty cool Yeti and a three-headed dragon, in the trailer. So if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen everything you need to. Save your money. Finally, the script by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar is abysmal. Not only did it need some serious editing, but it lacked any real humor – unless you find it funny that a yak gets airsick and pukes on Evie’s brother (John Hannah) – and it contained extended domestic drama that slowed down the action. Do you want to see Rick and Evie talk at length about how they failed as parents? No, neither did I?
Conceptually, “Mummy 3” had a lot going for it. The First Emperor is a truly interesting historical person who did a lot of the things the film says he did. He was obsessed with immortality, did, in his paranoia, have people randomly killed, and it is believed that he had thousands of his victims buried beneath the Great Wall. Furthermore, China is beautiful. The idea of terra cotta warriors fighting is awesome. And did I mention that Yeoh and Li are together again? So what happened? This film was obviously made not out of love – which I’m sure Sommers would have had for it – but out of greed. The sad thing is the end forecasts yet another sequel – this time in Peru. And according to the news wires Cohen is already talking about it. Remember the sequel rule, if the third one sucked, how much worse could the fourth one be?
If the fourth film is in Peru, then we have to see Incan foes, and they weren’t particularly nasty buggers. What is it going to be: “The Mummy: Rise of Atahualpa.” You know? The guy who met and was killed by Pizarro? Yeah, didn’t think so. Maybe they’ll just forget the history books, throw in a heart-eating Aztec, and get Mel Gibson to direct. He may have one more “passion” left in him.
Rob Cohen (director) / Alfred Gough, Miles Millar (screenplay)
CAST: Brendan Fraser … Rick O’Connell
Jet Li … Emperor Han
Maria Bello … Evelyn O’Connell
John Hannah … Jonathan Carnahan
Michelle Yeoh … Zi Juan
Luke Ford … Alex O’Connell
Isabella Leong … Lin
Anthony Wong Chau-Sang … General Yang
Russell Wong … Ming Guo
Liam Cunningham … Mad Dog Maguire