The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor (2008)

Rating: **
Release Date: 8/1/08
Director: Rob Cohen
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Maria Bello, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, John Hannah, Luke Ford, Isabella Leong, Anthony Wong, Jessey Meng, cameos by Russell Wong, Jacky Wu

A silly and embarrassing effort that should nail the coffin shut on the franchise. I suspect the only reason it exists is because director Rob Cohen REALLY wanted to make a Chinese period piece, and this was the only way the studios would let him. In keeping with the comparisons to "Raiders Of The Lost Ark" (1981), this one would definitely be "The Last Crusade Lite," even down to the father/son and "fountain of eternal life" subplots. As such, the film is a complete embarrassment for nearly everyone involved. The ridiculous story is as follows: Alex O'Connell (Luke Ford) finds the tomb of a cursed Chinese emperor (Jet Li), who is unintentionally brought back to life by series veterans Rick and Evelyn O'Connell (Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello). As the emperor is running around trying to resurrect his indestructible terracotta army, the O'Connells have their hands full trying to bring him down. The whole thing boils down to an epic effects laden battle between Han's terracotta army and the undead who oppose Han's rule. Yawn.

The film starts with a delightfully entertaining flashback into Chinese folklore as the nature of Han's curse is revealed. Then the film grinds to a complete halt and aimlessly fumbles around for the rest of its running time. The film is amazingly schizophrenic. All of the scenes in China are gorgeous and the Chinese actors are wonderful. I nearly jumped out of my seat when I saw Anthony Wong, and it was nice to see Russell Wong and Jacky Wu as well. But whenever any of the non-Asian cast shows up, the film is unwatchable. The dialog is excruciating and both Brendan Fraser and John Hannah look as if they're wondering why they signed up for this farce. The lovely Rachel Weisz wisely decided to opt out of the film, and her character is played by Maria Bello instead. This doesn't work at all, and they would have been better off inventing a new character for Ms. Bello. Luke Ford is annoying, but I can easily blame the material for that.

Despite being received as one of the worst movies of the year, the main reason I went to see it was for Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, who haven't been in a movie together since the delightful "Tai-Chi Master" (1994). Unfortunately, neither of them have much to do, and their one brief fight at the end of the film is obscured by bad camera work and editing. Much like Dwayne Johnson in "The Mummy Returns" (2001), nearly all of Jet Li's screen time is spent as a computer animated creature, reducing him to mere cameo status. Even more disappointing is the ridiculous slug-fest between him and Brendan Fraser at the film's climax. This fight had a lot of potential as a showdown between the diminutive Li's kung fu prowess and Fraser's bulk and raw strength. Instead, it's filmed in a deceptive drop-frame style, and it's quite possible that the two of them never even met.

The Asian cast does a fine job and they seem to be the only ones who can take the material seriously. Tragically pretty Isabella Leong provides all of the female eye candy for the film, but her action scenes are hopelessly crippled by invasive wirework. Playing a power-mad villain is certainly no stretch for Anthony Wong, and he seems confident and comfortable in his role. However, it's his right-hand officer (beautiful Jessey Meng) that's even more impressive. As I mentioned before, Jet Li has little to do other than look stoic and shout a few lines, while Michelle Yeoh is reduced to what amounts to primarily a speaking role - a cultural bridge between the Asian and non-Asian casts. The visual effects are competent and attractive, but mostly uninteresting. They're big and technically impressive, but lack any emotional impact. While the film is mostly innocuous fluff, one has to ask why anyone bothered to make it? Is this really what Hollywood thinks people want to see?