13 January 2009

A Mummy Bonus! The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)
Directed by Rob Cohen. Starring Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, John Hannah, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford, Isabella Leong, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang.

Cross-posted to Black Gate.

Here’s the surprise that I promised yesterday. You thought my “Mummy” reviews were over. Wrong! I’ve got a review of the recent DVD release of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, last year’s third/fourth entry in Universal’s latter-day Mummy franchise. (Numbering depends on how you classify The Scorpion King. I classify it as lousy.) Actually, there aren’t any mummies in the film, but that didn’t stop Universal from trying to drag out the series for one more go. Don’t dream that you’ll see any more of those.

So… no mummies appear in this “Mummy movie.” The film earns the first part of its title because it features ongoing characters from the two legitimate Mummy flicks that proceeded it, The Mummy (1999) and The Mummy Returns (2001). But there’s no Egypt aside from a bar called “Imhotep’s,” and no mummified anything. We instead have an immortal Chinese Emperor/Wizard who breaks free from a terracotta shell, but that isn’t a mummy in my definition. The visual effects try to give him a mummified appearance when he’s still in his clay-like form, but sorry, still not a mummy.

But then, the second series of Universal mummy movies were never about the particulars of the classic horror-movie undead Egyptian, but about copying Indiana Jones, old adventure serials, pulp magazines, and adding wiseacre humor to attract the widest audience possible. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is perhaps the most pulpish of the four films in the series (I’m including the 2002 sword-and-sorcery spin-off The Scorpion King), and fans of pulp fantasy will find it interesting.

Please note that I say “interesting.” Not “good.” I think there’s a lot to enjoy about the film, and it’s the second best entry in the franchise, but since that only places it above The Mummy Returns (which I loathed) and The Scorpion King (which is so unambitious that I can’t attach any emotions to it), that isn’t thunderous praise. But it’s a more watchable film than Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which promised the sky from its participants after years of searching for the perfect material, and then delivered nothing. On the other hand, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor just wants to be a dumb B-movie fantasy-adventure with big effects and lame jokes. It achieves that.

Oh, and it has monsters. Plenty of them. I’m a sucker for monsters, so I could shunt away the film’s major failings occasionally and enjoy the three-headed dragon, giant horned lion, rampaging yetis, and a team of fire-breathing iron horses. If Ray Harryhausen had made this in the ‘60s, it would have been brilliant and formed an important part of all our childhoods.

Like all the modern Mummy films, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor opens with an historical flashback, “where a mythic battle” took place. (But if it’s mythic, that means it never happened, right?) The First Emperor of China (Jet Li) desires the secret of immortality, and coaxes the witch Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh) to locate it for him. She finds the secret to eternal life in the monastery of Turfan, but she falls in love with General Ming when the Emperor desires her for himself. The Emperor executes Ming, but Zi Yuan uses the magic she discovered to turn the tyrant and his soldiers into terracotta statues. This doesn’t really make them “mummies,” but this opening sequence is actually strong and grave, with the sense of the legendary that the narrator’s voice implies. The moment it’s over, we fly to 1947 and Brendan Fraser as hero Rick O’Connell goofing around with fly rod fishing.

I would like to add at this point that I’ve visited the actual tomb site of the First Emperor in Xian and seen the terracotta figures in their pits with my mortal eyes. Thank you very much.

Rick’s wife Evelyn is now a popular author of trashy mummy novels and is played by Maria Bello, taking over from Rachel Weisz. I’m sorry to see Weisz leave (differences with the script, she claimed, and she has an Oscar so she can turn down whatever she wishes), but I’m a fan of Bello as well so I won’t complain too much. Rick doesn’t enjoy his wealthy English countryside retirement, and obviously wants to get back into the action. He doesn’t know that his son Alex (Luke Ford) has dropped out of college and is in the deserts of China, trying to dig up the tomb of the Emperor. Alex and his team eventually discover it, and, as per the standard script, undergo a barrage of outrageous traps before locating the mummy in its chariot sarcophagus.

Mummy fireRick and Evelyn arrive in Shanghai on a mission for the Foreign Office to deliver the talisman the Eye of Shangri-la to the Chinese government. There they bump into their son in Uncle Jonathan’s (John Hannah) nightclub—with a design right out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Some blah family drama occurs, about which I don’t care, but then a Chinese General (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) who wants to revive the Emperor for his own purposes comes to seize the talisman. Like any decent plot coupon, the Eye revives the Emperor, and away we go.

From now until the end the movie, the story is a set of chases and plot coupons: get item A and plug into slot B, but first retrieve item C to kill the villain before he can get a hold of D, then send away for the ending. It’s not as annoying as in Van Helsing (which was directed by original Mummy director Stephen Sommers, who produces here), but it’s uninvolving and only an excuse to bring on the next monster set-piece.

The action plays it mostly for laughs and overkill, especially the chase through the streets of Shanghai (again, which has no similarities to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and I have no idea why I brought it up), where a fireworks truck pursues a chariot drawn by fire-breathing metal steeds. The O’Connells’ quest to stop the General and the Emperor from reviving the great terracotta army leads them into the Himalayas and a hilarious encounter with yetis, who look like a mix of Sully from Monsters Inc. and body-building Persian cats. The finale pitches two armies of the dead against each other. It turns out that the Emperor’s plan to subjugate the world with his terracotta forces was hastily thought out, because the suckers shatter like pottery shards when struck with a bullet. A small contingent of the Japanese Self-Defense Force could take them out in a few minutes. Girl scouts with access to Gatling guns could probably handle it.

Best of all the monster moments is a gorgeous three-headed dragon into which the Emperor transforms once he restores himself with Plot Coupon C. The Emperor must be a big fan of Godzilla films, since this triple-cephalic lizard is an exact duplicate of King Ghidorah, Godzilla’s most legendary opponent. I have no idea if this was intentional, but if it were, I have a bit more respect for the screenwriters and director Rob Cohen—who dealt with dragons earlier in his career with the movie Dragonheart.
Away from the fun beasties, the film pretends that its family drama might matter, and that we give a damn about Alex’s love for Ling (Isbella Leong), daughter of Li Yuan and General Ming, or about Uncle Jonathan scheming to make money in Shangri-la, or the O’Connells’ mid-life crisis. We don’t, since neither the performances nor the dialogue seem to give a damn either. Luke Ford is annoying as Alex, who doesn’t give the sense that his character has more than swagger. Fraser does seem to be trying—this is his actor franchise, after all—but he has nothing but awful jokes to spew. The Chinese actors get all the stilted exposition, but since most of it is in their native tongue, it carries some dignity. Second-billed Jet Li, however, might as well not be in the film. He brings nothing to it.

This will be the end of the second Universal Mummy series, I wager. In a few years, the time may be ripe for a new, horror-laden and Egyptian-centered re-visit to the ideas in Karl Freund’s original 1932 classic. I hope someone pursues this. But if you want some pulpy dumb fun for the moment, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor delivers the modest goods.