THE MUMMY – TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR (2008) : R.Cohen : 5/10

IN A NUTSHELL : Creaky three-quel only occasionally delivers the goods.

" Remember when this year's summer movie season suddenly, surprisingly featured a raft of intelligent, exciting films? Well, that time has now past, as this week's main release – The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor – is typical summer crapola."
     Nick Schager, Lessons of Darkness

Mr Schager isn't remotely wrong in his diagnosis, but after a slew of over-ambitious / portentous / "adult" fare like Wanted, Hancock, The Dark Knight and The X-Files : I Want To Believe, a little bit of "typical summer crapola" counts as welcome light relief.
   Dragon Emperor (it's a German co-production, in which language the subtitle becomes a rather more beguiling Grabmal des Drachenskaisers) certainly doesn't take itself remotely seriously, cobbling together ideas and action-sequences from other, better movies (the climactic CGI-horde-v-CGI-horde battle, with conspicuously bloodless 'carnage', is straight out of Return of the King) and arriving with shamelessly opportunistic timing just after Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has vacated our multiplexes and just before the Beijing Olympics.
   A rickety compendium of Oriental cod-history involving an undead warlord from a bygone Chinese era, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar's plot (set in a 1946/7 where nobody seems to smoke) has very little to do with either of the first two pictures in the moneyspinning franchise, Stephen Sommers' The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001) - save for the presence of an eerily unaging Brendan Fraser as genial, swashbuckling, slightly lunk-headed American adventurer Rick "Ricochet" O'Connell (roughly equal parts Indy, Doc Savage and Flash Gordon), plus John Hannah as his cowardly brother-in-law Jonathan.
   Having become a mother – and, perhaps more pertinently, an Oscar-winner – since the last episode, Rachel Weisz has now "ankled" the series, replaced in her role as Rick's raven-haired English-rose wife Evie by, of all people, Maria Bello: who's very blonde, very American (she struggles with the accent), and who, after her superb work in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, one might have thought no longer needed to "slum it" in such an unworthy, juvenile-oriented vehicle for her considerable talents.
   You can't help thinking that if, as was widely expected at the time, Bello had been nominated for the 2005 Supporting Actress Oscar – which, ironically, eventually went to Weisz – she wouldn't be seen dead in such an enterprise as this. Indeed, Evie is a part – demure one minute, kick-ass the next – which might plausibly have gone to Kate Beckinsale, whom Sommers directed in his last feature to date, 2004's Van Helsing. Rob Cohen takes over the reins this time, and seems only fitfully engaged by proceedings, delivering a picture which only occasionally clicks into proper spectacular-action-romp life – though the animated, black/white/red end credits are worth sticking around for.

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   As it is, Bello may arguably count herself lucky that she should land such a relatively high-profile role at all, given that she's now over 40, and thus into the notorious "danger zone" for Hollywood actresses. But she might cast an envious glances at one of her co-stars: Michelle Yeoh is clearly still going strong (and scarily fighting-fit) at 46, and her turn as a quasi-immortal "witch" adds unwarranted class to proceedings whenever she appears.
   Yeoh is regrettably – but predictably – underused, having most to do during a prologue which is surprisingly lengthy considering that all the dialogue is subtitled. It takes place in ancient China, where a villainous Emperor (a suitably stern Jet Li) dreams of immortality but is stymied by a spell cast by a good-hearted witch (Yeoh). Thousands of years later, the Emperor – long "mummified" along with his army of terracotta warriors – is awakened, his dreams of brutal global conquest intact, said ambitions involving a powerful jewel known as the "eye of Shangri-La." 
   Helpless in the face of such laborious mumbo-jumbo – the Emperor's shapeshifting abilities (is eventually able to transmogrify into "the most hideous creatures ever seen!") making him distant kin to The Mummy Returns' Scorpion King – the colonial authorities send out a call to the O'Connells. The couple, who have long sinced settled into a tweedy, cosy but stultifying domesticity – with implicitly negative results for the sex-life – jump at the prospect of "one last assignment."
   It's hard to imagine similar enthusiasm igniting in the breast of Fraser who, more than a decade ago, signed a three-picture Mummy deal which – as the years ticked by – he might have been forgiven for presuming had fallen into abeyance. It wouldn't be accurate to say that Fraser merely "goes through the motions" here – while a long way from, say, Gods and Monsters, Crash or The Quiet American, he's game and professional throughout – but the film-makers have taken the precaution of introducing a potential new leading-man for the franchise in the form of 27-year-old Australian actor Luke Ford as the O'Connell's college-age, chip-off-the-old-block son Alex (any connection with Alex from the 1933-set The Mummy Returns, when the character was a precocious whizz-kid inventor aged about six, is almost entirely coincidental).
   Trouble is, Ford doesn't give much evidence of standard-bearing potential – indeed, if there's to be a fourth instalment (and, given the general feeling of a concept being stretched beyond breaking-point, that's a pretty big "if") the producers might well consider taking a rather different tack and concentrating on the more comical figure of Jonathan, who's seen heading for Peru at the denouement here. Hannah is a capable enough performer given the right material – and certainly deserves a change of luck after being saddled with arguably the clunkiest single line of dialogue from any major release of 2008: "The yak yakked!", he anachronistically exclaims, crushed into the back seat of a wayward, mountain-skimming propeller-plane alongside a chundering – and all-too-obviously ersatz – Tibetan bovine.

Neil Young
12.Aug.08

MORE FROM SUMMER 2008

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USA/Ger/Can
112m (BBFC timing)

director : Rob Cohen (Stealth, xXx, The Fast and the Furious)
editors : 
   Kelly Matsumuto (The Fast and the Furious – Tokyo Drift; Van Helsing; The Mummy Returns, etc.)
   Joel Negron (The Invasion, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre – The Beginning; Gridiron Gang, etc)

seen 5.Aug.08 Newcastle (Empire cinema : press show)