I want my mummy!
Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
2 out of 5 stars (3 out of 5 with bonus disc & movie book)
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson
So when is a mummy movie not a mummy movie? When it's set in China, and instead of sand-blasting pharaohs, you get ninja girls and an emperor made of clay.
"The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" is what happens when you open the sarcophagus once too often - the plot rots. There's plenty of flaying fists, flying feet and bouncing bullets to occupy the eye, but the script and the acting is as hollow as Chaing Kai Shek's promise to play nice with the Communists.
"Emperor" is available in a two disc deluxe edition. The second disc gives you the royal treatment with extras that are far more compelling than the movie.
The idea of a third mummy movie must've looked good on paper. Revitalize the franchise by having the Connelly's (a sleepy Brendan Fraser and miscast Maria Bello stepping in for Rachel Weisz) accept one last assignment - taking a wonton-sized diamond with magical properties to Shanghai. Unbeknownst to them, their son, Alex, (overconfident and under talented Luke Ford), is in China, and has dug up the tomb of Emperor Han, a ruthless ruler rumored to be cursed. As we learned during the opening scenes, which apparently took place 2,000 years ago (we know this because of the presence of a beautiful sorceress and a floating book), the Emperor sought immortality. (Emperor Han is portrayed by a regal Jet Li in what amounts to a couple of cameos.)
With Han frozen like a clay Popsicle, the film needs a substitute villain until he can be thawed out. Enter General Yang (a relentless Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), and his scar faced sidekick Choi (athletic and alluring Jessy Meng), who intend to revive the Emperor and his army and clean up China (no pun intended). Alex can't thwart the evil duo from snapping the Emperor out of his stiff slumber, but he gains an ally in naughty ninja Lin (Isabell Leong, completing the trifecta of talented, tantalizing Asian actresses). Linking up with his father, mother and Uncle Jonathan (the weak-kneed and still annoying John Hannah), Alex and his resourceful bad guy busters must stop the Emperor of clay from scorching the countryside.
"Emperor" still had a chance to succeed even though it sported a plot that fractured easier than a stale fortune cookie. Then Rachel Weisz, who starred as Evelyn "Evy" Connelly in the first two Mummy movies, read the script and chose preserving her professional dignity over an obscene paycheck, wisely dropping out. She was replaced by Maria Bello, who not only bore no physical resemblance to Wiesz, but also appeared to be playing a hybrid character that was a confusing cross between Amelia Earhart and Emma Peel. The strategy of replacing one actor with another didn't work in "Bewitched" and it sure doesn't work here, knocking a nail in the old sarcophagus. Her Evy is much more physical than Rachel Weisz's elegant and intellectual version. Bello's Evy is a kickin', swingin', shootin' heroine. It's not a bad idea to try and freshen up the character and gives Bello a chance to make it her own. Too bad Bello's as stiff as a terra cotta soldier and overstates her English accent to the point where you know it's a paltry put on. She's enjoyable to watch. But painful to listen to and has absolutely no connect with Fraser, who looks bored in his scenes with her.
By relocating the action, the film also lost an essential supporting character, Ardeth Bey (smoldering Oded Fehr), the mysterious tattooed Bedouin who always seemed to come to the Connelly's rescue. And having mischievous Alex suddenly mature into a man might have worked if he wasn't cast as a typically rebellious hard headed know-it-all twenty something.
The characters are so thinly drawn they come off as excuses for the special effects and gunplay. In the first two films, Brendan Fraser displayed a talent for combining heroism while delivering snappy one liners. I don't know why, but in "Emperor" Fraser adopted the same dumb as a rock punch drunk tone Sly Stallone used in the "Rocky" movies. He also shouts a lot, as if to test the durability of the mikes. The stale script makes his jokes seem forced, and it doesn't help that the material isn't funny to begin with, as exemplified by the scene where the O'Connell's are flying to the Himalayas to stop the Emperor from reaching Shangri-La. They hire one of Rick's old buddies, Mad Dog McGuire (an over the top and underused Liam Cunningham) to fly them through foul weather in his rickety plane:
Mad Dog: I'd tell you to fasten your seat belts, but I was too cheap to buy any.
Rick Connelly (laughing): Why am I laughing?
The villains steal the show, even if they're predictable and one dimensional baddies whose sole mission is to rule the world. (Oh, that old obsession again.) The absence of the franchise's reason for being - the mummy - is felt throughout. Without Arnold Vosloo's bald, angry visage, the film has to rely on the mostly absent Li. In the extras, director Rob Cohen says the role of Emperor Han was written with Jet Li in mind because, "He's cool, he's handsome. He's an amazing martial artist, but he's got a great screen presence." That may be true, but he's as scary as John Belushi's "Samurai Warrior" character - and hey, he's made of clay, so why don't the Connelly's melt him down like cheap pottery?
If I was Jet Li, I would have jetted as far away from this project as possible. It's too bad his CGI alternate is more threatening than he is. When Li is whole at the beginning of the film, he has the noble countenance thing down, his jaw line clenched like Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune. When he makes his re-appearance much later, he draws yawns rather than screams when he huffs and puffs like a yakked off Yeti, but at least he gets to do a little Kung Fu fightin.'
With lead villain Jet Li only available for a few weeks, director Rob Cohen devised a way to keep Li on camera without him actually having to be present by having him appear for two-thirds of the film in terra cotta form. To create his clay emperor, Cohen filmed Li's facial expressions, then constructed a CGI Li double. It's the computer generated Li that awakens from his slumber and drives a chariot down the busy streets of Shanghai during the film's best sequence. The scene in which Li literally turns to stone, spewing clay from his pours like a frat boy losing his Jack Daniels, is also a neat visual trick. Li's doppelganger spits fire (ahem, clay melts), changes shape, falls apart like a broken vase when he's upset, and clanks along with the quietude of the Tin Man when he walks. (He obviously forgot he'd have to spend eternity in tight metal armor.) Cohen also fashioned an army of terra cotta soldiers to do battle with a throng of skeletal slaves. Like the chase scene, the climatic battle between the Emperor's forces and those of General Ming is one of the film's best moments; but it doesn't bode well when glorified cartoon characters are more interesting than the human beings.
With the exception of the marginalized Li, the Asian actors outperform their international counterparts. Michelle Yeoh is elegant, alluring and wise as Zi Juan. Anthony Wong Chau-Sang maintains a stern look and barks orders like a seasoned military lunatic. Jessy Meng is undyingly loyal and tough, and Isabella Leong is a limber Kung Fu cutie. They all should have been on the screen longer. Meng's Choi is deemed so insignificant that she doesn't even warrant a first name, and there's no explanation as to how she got that long scar on her face, something that would have made an interesting back story.
The special effects are the movie's main attraction. There's tension and the anticipation of danger when Alex and his explorer cohorts enter the tomb of the Dragon Emperor, then one of them activates a booby trap and the very floorboards they're standing on turn deadly, the walls spray gas and spit out arrows like a machine gun. It's a fast-moving, scene that registers a pulse.
When the special effects come across as too pointed or predictable, watching "Emperor" is like pushing a dead yak through five feet of snow. Speaking of yak, the slobbering pack animal that Uncle Jonathan becomes strangely attached to looks like a mutant mule from the cutting room floor of "Star Wars." The scene in which Emperor Han has to climb a tower in order to find his way to Shangri-La and regain his immortality is undercut by the entrance of goofy looking Yetis resembling polar bears on steroids that act all too human. Hey, I'm not snowblind - when abominable snowmen stop beating up the bad guys long enough to congratulate one another, you're really messing with what little credibility you might have.
More Mummy For Your Money...The Extras
With a dozen extras, you can certainly take one from column A and one from column B in order to amuse yourself. The second DVD includes "The Making of the Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon," "From City to Desert," "Legacy of Terra Cotta," "A Call to Action: The Casting Process," "Jet Li: Creating the Mummy," and "Preparing for Battle With Jet Li and Brendan Fraser." All of the mini-documentaries feature interviews with the cast and crew, such as Fraser, Bello, Li, Yeoh, Cohen, special effects producer Matthew Butler, and producers Steve Sommers and Bob Duncan.
"The Making of..." follows the 89-day shoot from early set construction meetings through the filming in Montreal (which doubled as the Himalayas) and China. Let it not be said the actors were pampered; we get to see Jet Li having his hands set on fire, and Fraser being trained to safely and accurately shoot a variety of weapons. (Having fired a machine gun on a movie set for two days I can attest it can be fun until the kickback begins.)
In "The Legacy of Terra Cotta," Cohen relates how the saga of the movie's clay soldiers blends fact and fiction. He was inspired by the story of Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who was buried with thousands of terra cotta soldiers, each one individually crafted and cast. He thought the idea of casting them as the film's mummies would be a good idea. (I can't say I agree with him.) You'll enjoy listening to designer David Carpentier talk about the visual details and the film's exotic look. (With a name like Carpentier you know he's either gonna build you an ark or a set.)
One of the more fascinating featurettes is "Jet Li: Crafting the Emperor Mummy" in which you get to see the process the crew used to create the CGI emperor. Kudos to Li too for being encased in a slimy body cast of clay and being asked to make over exaggerated expressions without a single complaint.
A Movie Book for the Ages...
In conjunction with the release if the two disc DVD edition of the film, Universal Studios has released a full-color movie book. Readers can follow the making of the film and check out sketches and photos of costume designs, storyboards and set designs. It's a glossy, elaborate volume that film buffs will enjoy, and is a must have visual document that will delight fans of the franchise.
By its lonesome, the "Emperor" has no clothes - or more precisely, no script. And whoever came up with the bright idea to move the action from Egypt to China should be wrapped up in linen and sealed in a sarcophagus.
Ironically, the DVD also includes a promo for the TNT thriller "My Worst Enemy" starring Christian Slater. Last time I checked, the shows rating was its worst enemy and it had been cancelled. The promo for "Caraline," a dark puppet drama set for release next year looks like a loser already. Kind of telling that these two duds are packaged with the flimsy story of a paper ruler. Mummy, you done me wrong.