Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, November 29, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

“The Mummy Returns” made lots of money but the franchise, for the most part, seemed to have run its course. Universal didn't seem to think so. In 2006, they randomly announced a Rick O'Connell solo movie, presumably focusing on his pre-”Mummy” adventures. This project quickly morphed into a third “Mummy” movie. Stephen Sommers and Rachel Weisz both opted out but the project continued forward anyway, with “The Fast and the Furious” and “xXx's” Rob Cohen directing. “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” promised to relaunch the franchise. Well, the movie also made money but fans hated it, forcing Universal to put the Mummy on ice for ten years and finish this iteration of the franchise altogether.

Set thirteen years after the events of “The Mummy Returns,” Rick and Evey O'Connell are now retired from a career as World War II-era spies. Evie now writes romance novels based on their adventures while Rick, uneasily, settles into a domestic life. Their son, Alex, is now twenty and has grown into an adventurer himself. In China, he uncovers the tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The emperor built the Great Wall of China, mastered the five elements, and sought to become immortal but was cursed to become a deathless mummy instead. Naturally, a conspiracy awakens the Dragon Emperor, forcing the O'Connells to team up with the guardians of the emperor's tomb and save the world again.

I can't believe I'm saying this: Rob Cohen's direction makes me yearn for the comparatively subtle filmmaking of Stephen Sommers. For a man who has directed some enormous hits, I'm shocked at how clumsy Cohen's direction is. While exploring the titular tomb – which actually plays a small role in the film – Alex and his friends set off some booby traps. One, a spinning death disc that somehow seeks out its victims, seems to literally come out of nowhere. Later, the Dragon Emperor decapitates a minor villain. We never actually see the blow. We only see the guy's head fly through the air in slow-motion. Throughout the film, Cohen employs some deeply tacky visual stunts. In addition to his abuse of slow-motion and shakycam, Cohen is also fond of tossing shit into the camera. Sommers did the same thing in his two “Mummy” films but Cohen takes it so far, that the audience feels like their eyes are being gouged out.

Scripting-wise, “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is really no more or less silly or dumb than Sommers' “Mummy” films. The story is another lame MacGuffin chase that features successively bigger scenes of CGI-assisted action. There's even some conceptually fun ideas in the film. Such as Jet Li kicking a rocket into a trolley train. Some of the goofiness seems like a natural extension of the Chinese setting. Such as the field goal kicking yetis, the Terracotta soldiers, or the Dragon Emperor turning into both King Ghidorah and King Caesar. The execution of these ideas, however, leave something to be desire. As “The Mummy” trilogy went on, the CGI somehow got worst. The yetis look unnaturally light-weight. The Emperor's mummy form is stiff and doll-like. The various transformations are cartoonish. The army of good mummy soldiers that show up at the end look like Playstation 2 era cut scenes. How does a movie made in 1999 have better digital effects than a movie made in 2007? The mind baffles.

“Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” does have a pretty good cast. Getting Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh in the sequel should've been big deals. Yeoh is as radiant as ever but the script has her dully barking exposition. Li, meanwhile, is mostly replaced with CGI, reducing his natural charisma. As for the other new additions to the cast, they fare worst. Alex O'Connell is ten years older but still super annoying. Luke Ford plays him as a posturing, would-be macho bad ass that gets on the audience's nerves. Maria Bello, on paper, seems like a decent replacement for Rachel Weisz. In practice, Bello goes for exaggerated camp, instead of Weisz' sweet sincerity. Brenden Fraser, meanwhile, just seems tired. John Hannah, returning as Jonathan, struggles to get laughs out of dire material, such as falling in love with a yak puppet.

Expanding the “Mummy” franchise past Egypt is kind of a neat idea. This one covers China. The final scene promises a fourth adventure in Central America. You can envision a further sequel inspired by the bog mummies of Europe. Sadly, “Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is a trite, weary affair. None of the cast members want to be there. The script is lame. The effects are terrible and the action is a mess. The sequel provides further proof that some things – evil mummies, over-the-hill action franchises – should stay dead. [5/10]

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