Monday, October 20, 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

Since I reviewed the first two, I feel compelled to finish my trilogy of reviews by writing this one up. It's going to be brief, however.

The first two Mummy films weren't exactly masterpieces of cinema, but they got a lot right - they were simple, straightforward stories with charming characters, humour, a sense of adventure, and an epic scope backed by a surfeit of (admittedly cheesy) special effects. Despite being derivative, they had an identity of their own and, surprisingly, managed to be quite memorable. Sadly this latest installment rounds out the series (I hope) with an attempted bang that comes across as more of a whimper.

Set some years after 'Mummy Returns', 'Dragon Emperor' finds Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evey (Mario Bello standing in for Rachel Weisz) O'Connell reluctantly retired from adventuring while their son Alex (Luke Ford) is out secretly digging up mummies in China when he's supposed to be getting an education. Naturally, when the mummy of Emperor Han (Jet Li) is accidentally awakened and tries to take over the world, Rick and Evey come out of retirement and join Alex in China to stop him, and drag Evey's brother Johnathan (John Hannah) along. Aiding our heroes in their quest are two mysterious Chinese women (played by Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong) who seem to know a lot about what's going on.

Alright, I haven't really gone into much detail about the plot, but it's mostly irrelevant so that's all you really need to know. In films like these it's mostly the execution that counts - the characterization, the writing, the set pieces, the music, and so on. And in most respects 'Emperor' is decent, but suffers from feeling wholly derivative of not just the previous Mummy films but also of so many other classics of the genre; watching it is akin to watching some sort of retrospective 'Best Adventure Films' documentary. This series of films has never felt particularly original or consequential, but they never before felt quite as light and superfluous as this one either (though I can't really remember all that much of 'Scorpion King', truth be told). And while they were predictable, the first two parts had a whimsical charm that only occasionally crops up here, and this is largely because of the absence of the wonderful Rachel Weisz (who worked so well with Fraser) and the presence of the now strangely annoying John Hannah.

What about the action and adventure elements then? In addition to being derivative - not a fatal flaw in itself - they just aren't all particularly engaging. I wasn't expecting a sense of genuine danger here, mind you, just some inventiveness and humour, but alas, it doesn't even deliver enough to meet my moderate expectations. The effects and production values are fine, however, and are about par for the course. The cast is fairly decent but lacks the spark that made the earlier films - where even very minor roles were well cast and acted - such good fun. Admittedly, part of the reason is that the characters aren't written as well, and have little in the way of a personal story that fits in to the bigger picture.

I don't mean to sound too negative, as this is actually a fairly decent film and I think in many respects superior to the borderline bad 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull'. It's just that while I enjoyed it, it didn't make me want to revisit it any time soon. I must of course confess at this point that I didn't like 'Returns' the first time I saw it either, but that was more a reaction to the wanton excess of that film than to any serious failings on its part (though, wanton excess can be a serious failing as well, I suppose!). Recommended for completists of the series only, or those who somehow avoided Dr Jones.

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