The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Is it so much to ask producers to take a tiny fraction of those tens of millions of dollars they’re throwing at computer generated graphics and hand it over to a writer and director capable of making a movie that isn’t a tedious waste of time? Like so many movies that have come before it, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is stuffed full of special effects (none of which are all that eye-popping or adrenaline pumping) but lacks any of the great qualities that made the first Mummy film a wild, entertaining ride.

For that matter, I have to wonder why on earth they even bothered to make this movie part of the Mummy storyline in the first place. It could have worked far better as a completely separate tale. Instead, the characters that worked so well in ancient Egyptology have been carried over to Asian mythology and turned into lackluster drones. Neutered, sedated and lobotomized, they’re miserable shadows of the fun characters they used to be.

Like trying to cram a round peg into a square hole, the filmmakers have turned the adventurous Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) into a drippy ex-spy who spends the whole movie trying to figure out how to be a good daddy to his grown up son. Maybe that’s where the character really ends up in life, but I for one don’t want to watch a movie about it. Meanwhile, the lovely and vivacious Evie O’Connell (Maria Bello) has lost that glimmer of excitement in her eye. Despite being charged with the task of saving the world, she’s far more pre-occupied with making sure her son is happy in life. While it’s sad not seeing Rachel Weisz in the role, it’s also not Bello’s fault that the character is so hollow. The script and storyline leave her very little to work with. And don’t get me started on Evie’s brother Jonathan (John Hannah). Once my favorite character, his witty cowardice is turned into limp gags, resulting in a fellow not half as much fun as he used to be.

Far more interesting are the new faces tossed into the fray. The new mummy (who isn’t so much a mummy as a cursed piece of terra cotta) is Emperor Han (Jet Li), a warrior who once brutally dominated all of Asia. Having conquered the living world, he set out to conquer death by enlisting the help of, Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh), a beautiful sorceress rumored to hold the secrets to immortality. What follows are your usual bouts of back stabbing and double crossing which lead to Han and his army being cursed into clay statues, leaving Zi Juan and her descendants spending all of history guarding against their return.

Yeoh and Li bring a certain nobility and grace that are completely out of place in a mummy flick. This is supposed to be a movie about unwieldy undead monsters with incredible powers going toe-to-toe with desperate gun toting heroes who are struggling to use ancient knowledge to kick some supernatural butt. There’s definitely room for an exciting movie about a horrible emporer entombed in terra cotta and the struggle to defeat him when he’s resurrected, but mixing in the O’Connell clan just bogs the whole thing down. An epic fight between Zi Juan and Han near the end of the film could have been an amazing scene if it had lasted just a few minutes more. But then there wouldn’t have been enough time for Evie and Rick to lamely discuss how they’ve failed as parents.

Gone are all the elements that made the first movie so fantastic. The Mummy wasn’t really a romantic film, but the charming chemistry and biting energy between Evie and Rick was a large part of what made it entertaining. That charm has been replaced by middle-aged parental arguments worthy of Dr. Phil. The youthful energy is meant to be replaced by their son, Alex (Luke Ford) and Zi Juan’s descendant Lin (Isabella Leong). Their nervous relationship is poorly written and neither Ford nor Leong have the appeal needed to create the kind of sparks Fraser and Weisz shared.

Then there were the fight scenes that helped elevate the original film. Cleverly staged and fraught with tension, they’ve been replaced in the sequel by massive battles of armies of the undead. As exciting as that might sound, the fights are generally dry and full of the same kinds of things we’ve seen in every other CGI mass battle scene. One brief moment involving the now stereotypical archers-launching-thousands-of-arrows-simultaneously brings a twinge of excitement and short chuckle, but otherwise it’s a battle to fall asleep by.

Much like the painful disasters that were the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Dragon Emperor wastes precious time with silly side stories that seem inspired only by the thought “hey, we have lots of money to spend on effects, let’s throw this in for good measure!” One painful example are the yetis, big furry monsters who guard the gateway to Sangri-La and figure into the plot more heavily that I would have hoped. Looking something like giant cross-bred cats and monkeys, they give the director an excuse for another sleepy fight scene and bland attempts at goofy humor.

Painfully unbalanced, Dragon Emperor takes itself too seriously in the drama department and not seriously enough when it comes to humor and action. I had hoped for a movie that would hold my interest and kept me laughing as much as the original. Instead I got lukewarm eye-candy that had me checking my watch every five minutes. Is there room for more Mummy sequels? There might have been, but this one proves that they won’t be done well. Fraser and company need to take a cue from Weisz and move on to different things.