It’s never pleasant when something that was lightweight (albeit cheesy) and fun is forced into profit sharing mode. Put another way, when a franchise has to jerryrig its purpose in order to pump out another meaningless sequel/tre-quel/quad-cast, there’s very little entertainment fuel left for the fire. Take the latest unnecessary Mummy movie about to hit theaters this Friday (1 August). Here’s a flaccid little excuse for escapism that has the audacity to squander two of the finest talents ever to grace a Hong Kong action epic, and then it dumps the series’ signature character in favor of a last act battle between zombies and statues (trust us - it’s not nearly as cool as it sounds).
No one begrudges a movie star from earning a paycheck. Even our most celebrated and seasoned actors (Sir Ben Kingsley, are you listening?) have been known to lower their standards in order to up their income bracket. That being said, their profiteering doesn’t always have to be so obvious, or god-awful. This year alone, we’ve seen the aforementioned Oscar winner playing a crosseyed cornjob in Mike Myers seminal stink bomb The Love Guru. Joe Montegna - The Simpsons’ Fat Tony and Broadway’s original Ricky Roma - went effete for a turn as Larry the Cable Guy’s buddy in Witless Protection. Heck, even John Turturro took another break from indie angst to revisit popcorn land in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan (last year, it was Transformers).
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, John Hannah, Luke Ford, Michelle Yeoh, Isabella Leong
(Universal Pictures; US theatrical: 1 Aug 2008 (General release); UK theatrical: 6 Aug 2008 (General release); 2008)
Naturally, there are some who would never consider such a step down, or who simply bow out before they can capitalize on their newfound fiscal fame. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor has a perfect example of this high idealism in Rachel Weisz. Back in 1999, when Stephen Sommers was hired to bring the old school Universal creature up to date, his choice for the female lead - Evie Carnahan - was a fresh faced British actress with some minor onscreen credits. In 2001, when The Mummy Returns arrived, Weisz was more well known. Four years later, Oscar awarded the hard working performer for her turn in The Constant Gardener. Even then, Weisz expressed interest in reprising the role for this latest turn. Clearly, somewhere along the way, cooler aesthetic heads prevailed.
This happens a lot. Stephen Spielberg wanted Sean Connery back as Indiana Jones’ Dad for the latest installment of the action hero’s serial on steroids adventures. The temperamental Scottish legend said “No”. Similarly, Michael Keaton dropped out of the Batman movies when Tim Burton bailed. There are also instances where series staples are unceremoniously “dropped” from the planned follow-up. Imhotep himself, Arnold Vosloo, was told by original Mummy man Sommers that a follow-up was in the works, and they there were plans on bringing his character back. Fast forward a few years and Egypt is out, Jet Li is in, and the entire narrative was jet set over to China. That really must suck - especially when you’re the character everyone is supposedly clamoring for.
Of course none of this matters in a monster movie. All we really care about is the spook show. The Mummy films were never what you’d call frightening. They were more like heightened hype-horror - excess which might have been terrifying were the obvious strings and zippers not constantly reminding you of the schlock value. Sommers is an expert at such goblin grandstanding. Look at Van Helsing (you’d be wise NOT to take that advice literally). It took every famous fiend in Hollywoodland and transformed them into a computer generated free for all where logic and fun were shuttled aside and sacrificed for more and more Dracula-babies. Such showboating is standard operating procedure for this cinematic kid in a celluloid candy story. Unfortunately, in turning things over to Cohen, Sommers and the series went from the frying pan to fiasco’s fires.
Cohen completely misses the purpose of the Mummy franchise. He thinks he’s making Indiana Jones: The Far Less Professional Years. He handles action sequences with all the grace of someone who once made a movie about a killer airplane (Stealth - look it up) and uses every camera trick and editing ploy in the book in hopes that no one will notice the ineptness. When you have characters careening down a Shanghai street, their fireworks truck poised precariously to explode, one should be on the edge of their seat, not shrouding their eyes in dull skepticism. Not all spectacle stuntwork has to seem plausible, by Cohen’s take on this material gives one’s suspension of disbelief a major high impact workout.
Even worse is the aforementioned corpses vs. ceramics showdown. Like the infamous pygmy mummies from the second Sommers film, the amount of visual overkill on display is enough to give audiences a virtual headache. As every mainframe in California renders the ridiculous undead melee, Cohen keeps his camera as far away from the reality - literally and figuratively - as possible. This means that, at any given moment, the epic finale of Tomb of the Dragon Emperor looks like the final ant confront from a high octane version of Phase IV. Even worse, when we do eventually get close-ups, it’s hard to tell the motion capture performers from the computer generated fighters.
The last straw, however, has everything to do with the regional relocation and Vosloo-less casting decisions. Jet Li is, without question, one of the genre’s greats. His work with Jackie Chan in this spring’s The Forbidden Kingdom was that half-baked hackwork’s sole saving grace. Even as he approaches middle age (and a self-imposed desire to work in ‘straight dramatic films’ only), he can still kick major hinder. Now, add in a frequent female co-star of the mighty martial artist, the equally amazing Michelle Yeoh, and you’ve got a match made in Shaw Brothers heaven. When they square off, swords blazing and skills matched, it should resonate with heavy Hong Kong energy.
But Cohen blows it again, thwarting the choreography and avoiding the whole “wire fu” thing for some overcranked Ridley Scott-ishness and incompetent framing. Even the skeletons and statues are treated with more respect. To say that Li and Yeoh are wasted here suggests that anyone entering this latest Mummy massacre will actually have heard from them (or better still, recognize their non-Tinsel Town turns before the lens). Instead, they are merely the fodder for another pointless chapter, a ‘no one asked for it’ return trip to a place that wasn’t that interesting the first two times through. Weisz was right to bail - especially in light of how horribly underwritten this updated Evie ends up being (Maria Bello as her replacement is just bad).
About the only person to come out of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor not reeking of friendly yeti feces (don’t ask) is Brendan Fraser. Sure, the 39 year old is given a college age son in the film (it’s a soap opera level of biological time teasing) and he’s reduced to little more than a comedic foil for the foolishness surrounding him, but the ladies sure do love his shirtless musk (there was an audible girlie gasp in the theater when his semi-chiseled form got a loving close-up). Indeed, he’s got a Teflon talent which tends to wick away any lasting impact from his frequently incomprehensible career move - Dudley Do-Right? Monkeybone? As a perfect example of unnecessary coffer stuffing, this latest Mummy installment will probably be profitable enough to warrant yet a fourth foray into sarcophagus. And if part three is any indication of quality, the next cloth wrapped creature feature will be even more uninspired.