The gang’s all back for another rousing mummy adventure in “Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”. Well, kinda. The gang is sorta back together, if your definition of “gang” is two-thirds of the original stars, and the addition of a new, potential spin-off character. Oh well, two-thirds is something, right? And as long as star Brendan Fraser is back as tomb raiding adventurer Rick O’Connell, what could go wrong? Well plenty, as it turns out. Perhaps Rachel Weisz may have had the right idea when she took a pass on this third outing in the “Mummy” franchise.
Which isn’t to say “Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is a total loss. As a fan of Jet Li, I still get a kick out of seeing him playing a baddie. In this latest installment of the undead franchise, Li plays the Chinese Emperor Han, a man so consumed with ruling the world that he decides to cheat death in order to continue his campaign of global domination. Unfortunately for Han, he chose the wrong woman to help him achieve immortality, as the wizard Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) knows a thing or two about what evils lurk in the heart of men, in particular Han’s. She curses him and his legion of soldiers, turning them into stone, and thus halting Han’s ambitions for the next 2,000 years.
Fast-forward to 1946 Shanghai, and young Alex O’Connell (Luke Ford), son of Rick and Evie, have unearthed Han’s tomb. As it turns out, Alex was being played to achieve the ends of a diabolical partnership between a conniving museum curator and Chinese rebel General Yang (Hong Kong mainstay Anthony Wong), who is keen to resurrect the cursed Emperor. As these things usually go, Han is indeed resurrected, and it’s up to Alex to stop him. Fortunately the kid is not alone on his mission, he’s got help from his parents (who just happens to be in Shanghai on a final mission for the British Government, despite having “retired” to boredom after the war) and ass-kicking beauty Lin (Isabella Leong). Lin, we come to learn, is the daughter of Zi Juan, who is very much still alive after all these years, and guarding the hidden city of Shangri La and its mythical powers from the newly resurrected Han.
Don’t let the previous two paragraphs fool you. “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is nowhere near as complicated as the synopsis I just laid out for you. It’s an easy enough movie to follow, basically three major action set pieces joined together by a flimsy story, with only the charms of its characters to keep viewers from heading to the bathroom whenever the gunfire stops. Simply put, they took the formula from the second movie and simply changed the name of the mummy and the locations. By way of familiarity, we have Fraser and John Hannah as Evie’s hapless, treasure-craving brother, Jonathan. Meanwhile, actress Maria Bello (“The History of Violence”) steps in to pinch hit for the departed Rachel Weisz. Bello, who is not a bad actress by any means, does a decent enough job, but seems too preoccupied with her British accent. You gotta wonder, though, why the filmmakers didn’t just get another British actress for the role. Who knows how good Bello’s performance could have been if she wasn’t constantly thinking about her accent, and as a result, us thinking about her thinking about her accent.
The last “Mummy” movie was “The Mummy Returns” in 2001, a short two years after the first one burst onto the scene in 1999. Seven years after the last movie, and “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” feels … old. Which is odd, as Brendan Fraser doesn’t look old, and neither does Maria Bello, which makes it kind of difficult to swallow that spunky little Alex, just a rug rat 7 years ago, is now a grown man in his ‘20s unearthing tombs, dodging mummies, and romancing 2,000 year old female warriors. It doesn’t help that actor Luke Ford is 27 years old, and looks every bit of it. Meanwhile, Alex’s “dad”, Brendan Fraser, is 39 years old, a scant 12 year difference between “father” and “son”. The problem with this is that it shows onscreen. Brendan Fraser should be playing dad characters to rug rats with cute British accents, not someone who could legally drink with him in a bar.
In his second Hollywood villain role, Jet Li doesn’t have all that much to do, unfortunately. I’m not sure if Li had to even show up on the set for most of the shoot, as his Han-Mummy is CGI’ed for much of the film. Not that Li would have made an imposing villain anyway, as Li wouldn’t have been able to physically intimidate his opponents with his size (or lack thereof) the way Arnold Vosloo did in the two previous “Mummy” films. Director Rob Cohen, stepping in for Stephen Sommers, does the smart thing and keeps Han and O’Connell apart for most of the movie until the story’s climactic battle. Even then, the action is so fast and furious, and the editing so rapid-fire, that you never notice the stark difference in size (Fraser is a bulky 6’3” and Li a slim 5’6”) between the two men.
As the studio prepared to release “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”, the suits floated the idea of a fourth “Mummy” movie, this time with Alex O’Connell taking over the franchise, and presumably with Luke Ford returning as the star. Columbia Pictures should probably rethink their plans. Not only is Alex the grown-up an uncharimastic bore, but actor Luke Ford is a listless black hole as a devil-may-care adventurer. That point is driven home whenever Ford shares the screen with Fraser, who just seems to understand that the “Mummy” films are all about fun, while Ford stoically line-reads his way through the film like a younger, less charismatic Keanu Reeves. And trust me, when you can make Keanu Reeves look lively by comparison, you’re doing something wrong.
As of this writing, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” has made a nice chunk of change in its opening weekend, barely losing out to “The Dark Knight’s” third week on the charts. It’s not a bad take, although the film still has a way to go to make back its budget. Still, considering the film’s strong Asian bent (Li and co-star Michelle Yeoh will help with the Asian markets), the film should easily turn a profit, if not in worldwide box office take, then on DVD and cable. Will this result in a “Mummy 4”? Quite possibly, although hopefully not one starring Luke Ford as Alex O’Connell. If the studio wasn’t sure there was still an audience for “The Mummy” films (it did, after all, take them 7 years to finally make this one), I can safely tell them that No, there is not an audience for a “Mummy” movie minus Brendan Fraser. Trust me, guys in suits, Luke Ford is not the future of your franchise.
But let me say this about “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor”. It is what it is, and it never tries to be more than that. The idea is to give the audience a globe-hopping action-adventure, filled with loud gunfire, corny humor, and all the CGI bad guys you can handle. Basically, everything you got from the first two “Mummy” films, you’ll get about the same dosage in this latest installment. As a result, I was neither very surprised by the film’s lack of ambition, nor terribly disappointed by its familiarity. I found it mildly entertaining, and predictably, the moments were I smiled most involved Brendan Fraser throwing out one-liners and John Hannah lamenting his mummy-filled fate. I have no doubt that had Rachel Weisz returned as Evie, my enjoyment level would have doubled. If nothing else, there’s just something vastly endearing about watching the wide-eyed Rachel Weisz butt-kicking her way through a sea of CGI mummies.
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