What went Wrong with The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
by Kristin Battestella
Director Rob Cohen (Dragonheart) takes up the mantle from producer Stephen Sommers, director of The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, for the 2008 sequel The Mummy:Tomb of the Dragon Emperor as Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his wife Evelyn (Maria Bello) come to the rescue when their son Alex (Luke Ford) discovers the entombed Dragon Emperor (Jet Li). Once unleashed, however, the only person who can stop the resurrected Emperor is Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh) – the sorceress who cursed him.
Ancient Chinese mounds, swords, armor, and dynastic motifs accent the assassination plots, stabbings, raids, and conquest in the opening prologue. The enslaved building of The Great Wall, life after death texts, and forbidden romance betrayals, unfortunately, are a lot like the opening of the First Film, right down to the same Mummy music cues. Then again, the elemental powers, ancient libraries, tormented generals, and immolating curses nonetheless make for a great tale – one viewers forget isn't it's own adventure once Tomb of the Dragon Emperor restarts with our previous heroes now unhappy with post-war quiet and in a rut despite luxury living. Their son's discoveries of Chinese monoliths and the Emperor's tomb come easy and don't feel super epic thanks to the back and forth editing between the bored O'Connells and grave robber skeletons. There's little time to awe at the 2,000 year old frozen in time clay army when the more interesting plot elements are glossed over for set pieces treated as more important than the wonder. We can't enjoy the dragon crossbows, booby traps, or tomb chases because The O'Connells were apparently doing secret espionage work in the interim that we didn't get to see, either. Instead, some Lara Croft:Tomb Raider – Cradle of Life Eye of Shangra-La gem points the way to eternal life, with Tomb of the Dragon Emperor both embracing the Asian history yet feeling xenophobic with evil uniforms, double crossing enemies, and contrived western interference repeating the prior films' M.O. Chases through the streets with fireworks and New Year run amok are fun, but long, hollow fight sequences that do nothing to advance the plot make Tomb of the Dragon Emperor feel longer than it is. There's no sense of the scope or magical powers despite Himalayan treks, avalanches, mystical healings, and a revived Emperor who himself is asking what this is all for anyway. After the first hour, it's not quite clear what's happening with everything including a three headed dragon thrown at the screen in the last half hour. With a hop, skip, and jump, we're at a Great Wall spectacle raising rival dead armies in a Lord of the Rings easy meets CGI versus CGI a la The Phantom Menace that rapidly loses its touch.
Fly fishing in the English countryside is not quite Rick O'Connell's thing, and Brendan Fraser's once proactive, rugged adventurer is now an out of touch, corny old man with outdated weapons and unheeded advice. It's weird to see our favorite couple now arguing about their parenting and contemplating mistakes made – and not just because Maria Bello (The Dark) replaces Rachel Weisz as Evelyn in Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. After writing two successful novels about their mummy adventures, she's hung up with writer's block on the promised third book, but Evie doesn't have much to say or do once the characters are forgotten in the nonsensical action. Bello looks great in the period frocks and initially the camera accents that forties tone with coy smiles and under the hat brim poise, but this Evie does indeed seem like a different person. It would have been interesting if Bello had instead been a second wife and resented step mom competing with Evie's memory. Although the kid in peril was one of the problematic parts of The Mummy Returns, Luke Ford (Hercules) is now the grown up Alex rebelling against his parents yet conveniently following in their archaeology footsteps. Unfortunately, immortal hang ups and young love opposites attract can't save the character from falling completely flat, and Uncle Jonathan John Hannah is a nightclub owner who spends most of his barely there comic relief with a yak while pilot Liam Cunningham (Hunger) is merely convenient transportation. It's a pity we only really see Jet Li's (Romeo Must Die) warlord at the beginning and the end of Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. For most of the picture, the eponymous bad guy – who doesn't get any other name despite the historical possibilities – is just a resurrected, stilted, CGI thing more like an automaton robot rather than the feared man in charge. His powers over the elements are small scale or convenient, manipulating snow or fire and shape shifting as needed without any real countdown or ascension of power as anchored by Arnold Vosloo's Imhotep in the First Film. For the finale we get Li's fine action skills as expected, but he never really has the chance to be the true villain of the piece. Likewise, Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies) is relegated to glossed over bookends. Her immortal Zi Yuan witch lives in Shangri-La, and 2,000 years of magical pools are quickly explained away before a great but too brief one on one battle between our ancient foes – which is all we really want to see in Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.
While some of the fiery terracotta effects don't look so great on bu-ray, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor does well with tangible sand, statues, tents, and archaeology tools. The grand English estates match the vintage cars, antiques, typewriters, gloves, fedoras, and stoles. Temples in the mountains, Asian architecture, and snowy panoramas create a sense of adventure while chariots and molten horses coming to life invoke danger. Unfortunately, the shootouts, attacks, and explosions are super loud and cliché music cues are noticeably out of place. To start, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor feels very forties styled in a Universal homage, but then the action becomes hectic and modern messy with stereotypical seventies zooms when it comes to the kung fu. The camera, the people, and the fantastics are all moving at the same time and it's tough for the audience to see anything, and those contrived yetis – yes, yetis – are embarrassingly bad. Today, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor could have been a direct to streaming off shoot adventure – after all they're still making those direct to video Scorpion King movies. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor breaks from the more familiar theme with a bait and switch title caught between two masters. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor seeks to take the series in a new direction whilst also keeping its ties to the previous films. If this had no connection to The Mummy and embraced its own dynastic legends and lore, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor could have been a fun action adventure. Perhaps it can still be entertaining for youth able to separate it from the legacy of the First Film. Otherwise, the flawed, thin story, and try hard of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is just window dressing reaching for an adventurous charm that isn't there.