The most disturbing moment in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor comes early. Having recently published a romance-adventure novel, the ever intrepid Evie now stands before a bookstore full of British ladies, circa 1946. On completing her reading, Evie takes questions, the first having to do with whether or not the heroine is based on her own experiences. She pauses, sort of dramatically, then answers, so sweetly, “I can honestly say she’s a completely different person.” Indeed, as she raises her head, you see she is not Rachel Weisz, as in the previous two films, but she is transformed into Maria Bello, hair dyed brown and accent turned vaguely British.
This isn’t precisely a shock, if you’ve heard any of the low-level chatter concerning this third Brandon-Fraser-Meets-Mummies flick. And in such a clever allusion to the Casting Issue (which must have caused just a smidgen of initial panic, after all), the franchise here reveals, again, its self-understanding as being a series of movies about movies. This retro project was never much interested in craft or innovation; it was and is invested in olden days, when heroic boys had chiseled jaws, sidekicks, and big guns, and villains were visibly other, dark complexioned and turbaned. It helped that the primary girl was also plucky and smart, but surely not a necessity. Her most important function was to give him a moral and emotional ground, so that even if his tomb-raiding was mercenary, his eventual goal was splendid and predictable heterosexual union.
That goal needn’t be the end, of course, as this installment’s Rick and Evie demonstrate immediately. Even as she relives their previous exploits in her prose, he resists domestication in what might be termed “characteristic” ways. Determined to relax like a wealthy gentleman, he becomes instantly bored and frustrated while fly-fishing, leading to a not-so-comic commotion and dinner complete with bullets. Though he and the wife pretend to like having dinner at home “every night” and make brief mention of their wayward son, now supposedly “buried in his studies,” they are thrilled when asked to rush into another escapade, this one involving Shanghai, Shangri-La, and, unbeknownst to them, a Chinese mummy (cue the mashed-up Olympics-tie-in ads, courtesy of Universal-NBC).
Because Rob Cohen’s movie is apparently incapable of tension or nuance, you already know all this even before the fellow from the Foreign Office arrives at the O’Connells’ estate with an ancient diamond for them to transport to China. You have seen the mummy made, 2000 years prior, when, a very talky narrator reports, the exceedingly nasty Emperor Han (Jet Li) “enslaved his conquered enemies and had them build his Great Wall,” then pursued the secret of eternal youth, the beautiful sorceress Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh), and revenge against his double-crossing-but-really-good-hearted general (Russell Wong, and it’s excellent to see him, if only for six minutes). Though he ends up, in this poorly edited prelude, cursed for eternity, it’s only a matter of time before the Westerners invade his tomb and muck it up for the rest of the planet. Except that’s not quite it either: Rick, Evie, and son Alex (Luke Ford, whose expression ranges between pouty and poutier) are tricked into delivering the object that will lift the curse by General Wang (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), apparently hoping to win China’s civil war and rule the world by resurrecting Han and his 10,000 undead and eventually “unstoppable” warriors (“On that dark day, proclaims the increasingly irritating narrator, “There will be no one to save us”).
Wang’s plan, which soon becomes Han’s, entails some extra steps that lead the opponents over snowy mountain paths in search of Shangri-La, but really only prolong the nonsensical action. Much of this action is focused on bringing the estranged Rick and Alex together, prodded by Evie (“Why don’t we sit down and discuss this like a family?”), and not quite distracted by the appearance of a skilled and beautiful ninja fighter, whom Alex meets while first breaking into Han’s tomb. She turns out to be Lin (Isabella Leong), the sorceress’ daughter, assigned to safeguard the curse. Though she’s about 2000 years old, she’s conveniently preserved at an age suitable for Alex’s amorous attentions (though, as she points out, her immortality and his mortality make for instant tension).
Because she has access to witchy magic, Lin also occasions the film’s most profoundly unconvincing special effects, calling up a crew of abominable snowmen to help her and the O’Connells fight Wang’s army. While it may be true that someone rendering these creatures had some fun, the result is one disorientation after another. First, on their arrival, Evie is suddenly overcome by the recollection that she was, once, an academic, and so yells over the din of battle, “The Tibetans call them ‘yeti’!” as if anyone needs this cross-cultural vocabulary lesson right that minute. Worse, the snowmen themselves behave like high school football players, mugging and fist-pumping, suggesting that they maybe aren’t so ancient as their rep would have it (that, or they get cable up there in the Himalayas). They’re only saved from being the movie’s worst effect by Evie’s brother John (John Hannah), again tagging along to provide unfunny asides illustrating his crass capitalist cravings (“I could use a diamond like that!”), in order to show that at least Rick possesses minimal principles, by comparison.
And this seems the point, if Tomb of the Dragon Emperor might be said to have one. Amid all the poorly edited, atrociously written tumult, the silly CGI and the tragic misuse of Li and Yeoh, Rick remains an appealing throwback hero. Usually reckless but also curiously deft, blithely ignorant but surprisingly shrewd, he’s charming like old school leads in movie serials. It doesn’t hurt that Fraser looks fine here (and not nearly old enough to be that crabby Alex’s dad), not only chiseled as called for, but also enthusiastic, rambunctious, and just self-serious enough that you believe he’d head off on such a cockamamie adventure. Let’s hope that like the first Evie, he learns not to do it again.