by HELEN GEIB
If you’re a fan of The Mummy and its first sequel, then staying home from The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor would be like missing that once in every few years family reunion. Sure, you’ve heard the old family jokes a few times before, and yes, you could have lived happily without seeing quite so many baby pictures, but you know you’d regret it if you didn’t go. It’s just so good to see everyone together again.
The current Mummy film, the third in the series, reunites Rick and Evie O’Connell, son Alex (now all grown up), Evie’s brother Jonathan, select disreputable old associates of Rick’s, and undead Trouble with a capital T. When the film opens, it is 1946 and Rick and Evie are living quietly in the English countryside, retired from ancient world adventuring and their second career in wartime espionage. Too quietly, as it happens. They jump at the chance to act as couriers when the government asks them to take a priceless diamond to Shanghai under pretext of visiting Jonathan, who runs a nightclub there.
Unbeknownst to Mom and Dad, Alex is also in Shanghai. A real chip off the old block, he’s just made what may be the archaeological find of the century in the western Chinese desert: the tomb of an army of terracotta statues. Everyone meets up at Jonathan’s place and Alex takes Rick and Evie to see the centerpiece of his find, the emperor’s sarcophagus. Before you can say “Imhotep,” another mummy is on the loose.
In a stroke of brilliance, the filmmakers wrote a creation myth for China’s renowned real-world archaeological treasure, the terracotta warriors. In the Mummy-verse, the warriors were created when a powerful sorceress cursed the Dragon Emperor and his army. The Emperor, a ruthless despot well on his way to fulfilling his ambition to conquer the known world, brought the curse upon himself through his cruelty and his egomaniacal search for immortality. He hasn’t forgotten his ambitions or his grudges when he wakes up two millennia later.
Out of all three Mummy films, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor wears the series’ debt to the Indiana Jones films the most proudly. There is an early and unabashed nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark in Alex’s tomb opening adventure, and Rick and Alex’s relationship arc is plainly indebted to Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. It is just as if Indy and his dad had taken their bonding adventure together when Indy was still in his early ‘twenties, instead of allowing so many years of fruitless estrangement to pass them by.
Tomb of the Dragon Emperor wants to please and mostly does. While it’s not nearly as good as The Mummy, that’s not because the filmmakers don’t understand what made The Mummy such a delightful and entertaining film. The current film follows the template established by the first one quite closely and if anything, tries too hard to replicate its source. Much of the time the strategy pays off, but there are other times when the strain shows through.
This is perhaps most evident in the love story between Alex (Luke Ford) and Lin (Isabella Leong), the fetching young guardian of the tomb. Alex and Lin’s courtship is intended to parallel that between Rick and Evie in The Mummy, but their relationship is painfully underwritten. They meet and feel a mutual attraction, they trade a few insults as cover for their pain at the seemingly insurmountable odds against their being together, they declare their love. It is a connect the dots romance. The storyline is further handicapped by the casting. Leong’s performance is colorless, and Ford charmlessly overplays Alex’s brash, youthful confidence to the point that I actively sympathized with Rick’s parental exasperation.
Brendan Fraser displays his customary, very considerable charm as Rick. Maria Bello has the impossible task of replacing Rachel Weisz as Evie. Bello is a very good actress and her performance here is perfectly fine; I don’t suppose someone new to the series would find anything to criticize. But I am very attached to Weisz’s Evie and it’s just not quite the same without her.
The principal cast is filled out by three of the great stars of Hong Kong cinema, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, and Anthony Wong. All essay their roles with effortless flair. Jet Li fan that I am, I have no complaints except that I naturally wish he had more screen time. It was fun to watch Li play against type as the bad guy, and the Dragon Emperor is an excellent super-villain. Yeoh’s is my favorite performance of the film. She must surely be one of the most beautiful and graceful women in the world and she excels in both her dramatic and action scenes.
The film is action packed as expected of a “big” summer movie. There is a series of impressive set pieces, including a chase through Shanghai on Chinese New Year and sequences in the remote reaches of the Himalayas that incorporate a couple of more familiar myths, all leading up to the final confrontation in the shadow of the Great Wall between the terracotta army and an opposing undead host. The Emperor, naturally, is the cause of the trouble every time. The film moves at a lively pace and the dialogue is liberally sprinkled with comical exchanges and one-liners.
While I have enough reservations about the film as an adult viewer to give it only a qualified recommendation, I have no reservations about recommending it as a family film. The mugging and superficiality that I felt detracted from the film will not bother the kids, while the extremely positive depiction of Rick and Evie’s marriage and the emphasis throughout the story on family bonds (the O’Connells extended family, Lin and her mother) will be particularly appealing to families in the audience.
That most of the action revolves around the evil undead is another plus. If your children are old enough to watch the trailers for Death Race and Babylon A.D., violent, realistic action movies (each trailer contains more disturbing images than the entire Mummy film, and both played in front of the screening I attended, mixed in with the trailers for the talking Chihuahua movie, Madagascar 2, and an inspirational sports drama), then they are old enough to watch The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.
2 1/2 stars