Friday, August 1, 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor -- Crumbling Saga

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) • View trailer for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Three stars (out of five). Rating: PG-13, for plenty of grody action violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 8.1.08
Buy DVD: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor • Buy Blu-Ray: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (Deluxe Edition) [Blu-ray]

I have learned, over the years, to diminish my expectations when movies open in a particular manner:

• In a psychiatrist's office (only bad thrillers and horror flicks do this);

• With a voice-over prologue inserted to compensate for eleventh-hour editing that rendered the storyline incomprehensible;

Facing a veritable army of re-animated terra cotta soldiers, Rick and Evelyn
O'Connell (Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello) are relived (?) when their small band
of defenders is joined by thousands of revenge-seeking skeletons long-buried
beneath the Great Wall of China.
• With an extended flashback sequence that begins to feel longer than the film itself.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor falls into the latter category, although this is by no means its only flaw.

Action director Rob Cohen — taking over this franchise from creator Stephen Sommers, who helmed the first two entries — has delivered precisely the cartoon one would expect from the guy who brought us The Fast and the Furious and XXX. Cohen behaves like a second-unit stunt director; he rarely wastes time with trifles such as plot logic or characterization, preferring instead to charge from one frantic chase or fight scene to the next.

His films are breathless examples of cinematic whiplash, which I suppose is fine for the video game set, but less so for everybody else. Cohen obviously never learned the wisdom of pacing, or of balancing the frantic stuff with calmer scenes, so that viewers might relax for a moment and then better appreciate the next thrilling rush.

A nonstop diet of anything becomes tiresome, and that's the major problem with this Mummy: It never lets up, and that's boring. Older fans will recall that this misjudgment also plagued Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, which similarly went from one crazed action sequence to the next, with nary a pause for reflection or — God forbid — character development.

Then, too, scripters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar subscribe to the mistaken notion that anything goes in fantasy, and that consistency therefore is nothing more than a word in the dictionary, somewhere between clumsy and crummy. That's a newbie writing mistake, because of course the opposite is true: If we're to care a whit for the heroes and villains in fantasies, then they must be granted consistent strengths and weaknesses.

It simply doesn't work, as is the case here, when the villain can surmount any situation by suddenly whipping up some new power, such as morphing into a three-headed dragon. Nor is the situation helped by the sudden appearance of a magical knife — the only weapon that can defeat him! — that springs up out of nowhere, introduced by one character as an afterthought apparently inserted into the fifth draft of page 35.

Mostly, though, this Mummy doesn't work because too many key actors can't inhabit the movie.

No blame can be leveled at star Brendan Fraser, returning for the third time as explorer, archaeological expert and danger junky Rick O'Connell. Fraser, as always, gives his all to even this laughable flick; to whatever extent we're actually pulled into this storyline, Fraser deserves the credit. His pistol cracks and wisecracks are delivered with identical aplomb.

John Hannah, also returning as Jonathan, Rick's brother-in-law, is similarly good at comic relief ... although some of that is strained a bit, particularly when he gets drunk and subsequently amorous with a yak. (Honestly, that sort of stuff was old when silents gave way to talkies!)

Maria Bello, on the other hand, is a poor substitute for Rachel Weisz — who, I gather, wisely opted out — as Rick's wife, Evelyn. The irony is intriguing: Bello is an excellent dramatic actress who did memorable work in A History of Violence and The Cooler, among other recent films, but she's completely miscast here. It proves the old adage: Comedy is tough, and action comedy is even tougher.

Bello overacts atrociously, her reactions and facial responses forever at odds with whatever happens in a given scene. Her line readings are overwrought in a Shakespearean manner, and she seems to be inhabiting some entirely different picture.

But if Bello overacts, Luke Ford, the Aussie newcomer tagged to play Alex, Rick and Evelyn's now-college-age son, is wholly incapable of acting. His delivery is stiff as a board, and his character is thick as a brick: an inept, fumble-footed clod in every sense. That would be fine, if Alex were conceived that way ... but no, he's supposed to be a resourceful chip off Rick's block and a hunky romantic lead.

Not in this lifetime.

The story begins, following the aforementioned lengthy prologue, when a clearly restless Rick and Evelyn agree to abandon retirement and engage in one last mission as a favor to high-placed colleagues. They're to deliver a jeweled whatzis to the Chinese government, which allows a side trip to Shanghai and a visit with Jonathan, who owns a nightclub in this bustling, post-WWII city.

Alex, meanwhile, has gotten involved in a project of his own: Uncovering the long-buried tomb of an ancient Chinese emperor who, with his massive army, was transformed into a terra cotta statue (a nice nod to actual history, and China's Terra Cotta Warriors of Xi'an).

Alas, Rick and Evelyn are ambushed by the evil Gen. Yang (Chau Sang Anthony Wong), who reveals that Alex has been similarly duped; everything was a plot to snatch the jeweled whatzis and use it to revive the centuries-dormant Emperor (Jet Li, looking lost most of the time).

Yang apparently has no qualms about resurrecting a magic-laden tyrant who'd likely kill him, as well, but hey: It's that kind of story.

Fortunately — you knew there had to be a "fortunately" — the Emperor's tomb has been guarded for millennia by Zi Yuan (martial arts action star Michelle Yeoh) and her daughter, Lin (Isabella Leong). This despite the fact that Zi Yuan was mortally wounded when last we saw her — in the prologue — a detail she brushes aside by explaining that she was "rescued by abominable snowmen." (No, really: Three yeti do play a key role here.)

Like I said: Gough and Millar make this stuff up as they go.

Smaller details are equally annoying, such as a stand-off between the O'Connells and the now-partly reanimated Emperor, accompanied by Tang and his minions, in a snow-enshrouded Himalayan temple. This retreat is accessible only via a rope bridge, and Rick and his friends arrive first. Rather than engage the enemy in the subsequent (pointless) gunfight, wouldn't it have been easier — and smarter — to simply cut the ropes and destroy the bridge?

Or try this one: Rick & Co. eventually meet up with Zi Yuan at the mountainous outskirts of Shangri-La, a gorgeous, far-reaching realm of sunlit beauty in this otherwise frozen wasteland. But — aside from one wisecrack by Jonathan — they all subsequently move on to the next big fight, seemingly unimpressed, and with no further mention of this hidden paradise!

Goodness, wouldn't you at least want to build a vacation cabin there?

Such complaints probably won't matter to gung-ho viewers concerned about nothing beyond the action scenes, which are — in fairness — energetically staged. A car and chariot chase through the streets of Shanghai is particularly stylish: a neat blend of pell-mell danger and cute sight gags.

And the final battle royale, between the Emperor's terra cotta soldiers and similarly reanimated skeleton warriors — an astonishing update of Ray Harryhausen's skeleton fight in 1963's Jason and the Argonauts — is pretty darn impressive. It's also filled with hilarious little touches, for those with fast viewing reflexes.

Indeed, the production values are sensational throughout; the film's look and atmosphere count for almost as much as Fraser's enthusiastic, what-the-hell willingness to tackle anything.

But story, people, story. Sommers understood the mix, and that's why this third Mummy is a deeply unsatisfying shadow of its predecessors.

Time to let this series go, Brendan. Before it gets even worse.

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