Sunday, August 10, 2008

Review: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (***)

Starring Brendan Fraser, Maria Bello, and Jet Li
Directed by Rob Cohen
Rated PG-13 for adventure action and violence
113 minutes

Like the first film and sequel, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor has the sort of shameless, B-movie entertainment of 80s movies (most specifically, Indiana Jones). They are tailor-made for the summer season, eye candy for those who don’t want something too deep after thoughtful summer fare like The Dark Knight or The X-Files. I liked it a lot.

Brendan Fraser reprises his role as Rick O’Connell, who is as much a paleontologist as Indy Jones is an archaeologist. This time around, he and Evelyn are retired from the mummy-vanquishing gig, and Evelyn is happily transferring her adventures into best-selling books. All that changes when they are asked to return the Eye of Shangri-La to a museum in Shanghai. Soon, they learn that their son, Alex, has dropped out of school and into a boatload of trouble. This all leads to a plot about a curse placed on an emperor in an ancient land.

It’s just as ridiculous as the new Indiana Jones picture, if about 75% as fun. The action scenes don’t always entertain, but the final one, a massive battle between two undead armies, is every bit as exciting as the car chase in the earlier film. Obviously the visual effects in this picture have improved since 2001, when The Mummy Returns was released, and they are well-used here.

As for the acting, it’s adequate, as it was the earlier films. Coming up strongest, surprisingly, is Jet Li, who gives a slithery good performance in the title role, though, for the record, he’s not just a dragon emperor. Like the Monkey King in The Forbidden Kingdom (a film I enjoyed more than this, I must say), the Dragon Emperor has a tragic past, making him a character in a story, not just a guy to defeat; Li does a good job of capturing this, even when the special effects take over. Brendan Fraser, reprising his role as Rick, Luke Ford as Alex, and Michelle Yeoh as a mystical witch are all very good, but a missing-in-action Rachel Weisz makes way for a terrible performance from the usually good Maria Bello. Stale, awkward, and wooden, Bello never fits into the role of Evelyn, switching between accents and facial expressions without an emotion in sight.

The change in director, from Stephen Sommers to Rob Cohen, might have proved a better choice, actually. Cohen’s previous film, Stealth, was an utter debacle, yes, but he does work well with visual effects, something that a movie like Dragon Emperor needs. Sommers was good, but his editor obviously had the day off, and Cohen is more assured.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is one of the biggest surprises this year, an entertaining, if not terribly original, B movie.

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