If aspirations and ambitions were all it took to make a good movie (or at the very least, a merely entertaining one), there’d be no reason for critics. We lowly members of a dying print and public consciousness medium would be parking cars or pumping gas, the ever-present noble goals of the world’s filmmakers constantly saving their projects from utter failure. As part of his commentary track for the recent summer snoozer The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, director Rob Cohen offers up numerous scholarly excuses for his less than satisfying film. To hear him tell it, this third installment of an already dead franchise is rife with chronological wonders and visual splendor. He must be talking about the movie that’s still in his head. What’s on screen is just dull and dopey.
While really not enjoying their post-War retirement, adventurous couple Rick O’Connell and his wife Evie are content to try and live as normal, everyday people. All that changes when the British Government gives them a chance to return a precious artifact to Shanghai. There, they run into Evie’s brother Jonathan, their college aged son Alex, and a new supernatural threat - Emperor Han, cursed leader of a long lost Chinese dynasty. Along with his terracotta army, this petrified pariah will take over the world if he is resurrected, and sure enough, the item the O’Connells are trafficking is the key to his rebirth. It’s not long before the reunited family is scrambling to prevent such a catastrophe, a local Asian girl named Lin providing much needed guidance - and a mysterious knowledge of long past events.
There is no greater crime committed by a film like The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (new to DVD in a two disc Deluxe Edition from Universal) than being no damn fun. We’ll accept lame characterization, narrative hogwash, and an overall aura of cheesiness. We’ll even accept your uninspired idea of over the marquee casting. But when you can’t make massive CG battles entertaining or exciting, you’re clearly out of your popcorn movie league. No matter the extent of extras, not matter how you explain away the special effects, the actual historical context, or the specialness of working with Jet Li and Michele Yeoh, blockbuster boredom is the worst kind of tedium. This third go-round for the franchise even fails to deliver in the familiarity department. Gone are Rachel Weisz (clearly too big and award winning to be involved in such silliness anymore), our bandage wrapped Egyptian villain, and a sense of supersized kitsch.
When Stephen Sommers took on the task of revitalizing the classic Universal creature a few years back, he opened up his overstuffed brain and clearly said “Yes” to each and every excess. From the first film’s attempted epic-ness to the follow-ups proclivity toward pygmy mummies, Sommers understood the inherent goofiness of his charge. While allowing star Brendan Frasier to mug like a monkey on crack, he provided some certified genre brashness. But the idea of taking this kind of approach never got to new helmer Cohen. Instead, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor flounders in fake historical accuracy, an Indiana Jones meets the Temple of Tools wannabe-ism, and a fundamental lack of Li/Yeoh martial artistry. These two Hong Kong powerhouses should light up the screen, especially when fisticuffs are involved. Instead, their confronts are crap.
Maybe it’s the basic premise that undermines this third Mummy. Here, Li’s Han is your standard undead megalomaniac. He’s not some heartbroken shaman sent to sleep with the scarabs because of a forbidden tryst with the Pharaoh’s lady. There’s no sexiness here, no golden skinned cat clawing between Evie and some otherworldly babe. Instead, Maria Bello bumbles around like a bad parlor trick, her interpretation of the character cause for concern and utter contempt. Frasier seems to sense his co-star’s flop sweat, and ups his eye-popping panto to outrageous levels. Even John Hannah, whose whining drunkard brother Jonathan was never a subtle facet of the first two films, goes elephantine in the performance caricature department.
When it came to theaters back in August, many critics complained that, even though its scope suggested something spectacular and larger then life, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor was probably better suited for the small screen. As an amusement, it was a TV, not a theatrical party. Well, they were wrong. Dead wrong. Details that at least looked likable in 35mm are lost on the DVD, while other aspects blurred in the cinematic shuffle are emphasized now. Sure, it’s kind of neat to see how Cohen’s concept of “liquid stone” was realized during the Chinese New Year chase, and the Yeti’s lose some of their randy ridiculousness ratcheted down to boob tube size. But even with an outlay of deleted and extended scenes, cast and crew interviews, and numerous behind the scenes insights, this third installment in the franchise just lays there, dormant and uninvolving.
None of this matters to the ambitious filmmaker, however. During the course of his commentary, Cohen makes it clear where storylines were left purposefully ambiguous to make room for a few more films in the Mummy series. “As long as the fans want them” he says, suggesting that ticket sales and strong DVD sell-through will somehow sway Tinsel Town into taking on the material yet again (sure, like Hollywood is ever persuaded by a title’s commerciality before considering a sequel. Right.). If money is any measure of success, then this Asian update of the series earns a presupposed second chance.
But cash almost never matched creativity. In some cases, the amount of dollars earned is inversely proportional to the quality of amusement on the screen. Judged by those studio slicked standards, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a rock solid return on the investment. It’s also a sloppy stink bomb. Here’s hoping the next few installments find a way to balance ambitions with actual entertainment value. One senses, however, the motion picture maxim remaining in effect for the foreseeable future.