Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008, Rob Cohen)

I know I’ll take some flak for this, but I enjoyed the hell out of the 1999 Mummy remake. Great cinema it’s not, but it’s got a Velveeta charm that goes down easy, and no goals other than showing the audience a good time (any movie that begins with its leading lady knocking over a library full of book shelves clearly isn’t aching to be taken seriously). However, the sequel The Mummy Returns is a bloated mess that doesn’t have nearly enough fun with itself, and unfortunately the latest installment in the series, The Mummy: Curse of the Dragon Emperor, is closer to the spirit of the second film than the first. It’s an OK time-waster, but not much more than that.

Part of the problem here is that it actually expects the audience to care about the domestic difficulties in the O’Connell family- Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evie (Maria Bello) have seen the excitement drain from their marriage ever since they’ve retired from mummy-hunting, while college-aged son Alex (Luke Ford) doesn’t get along with his dad. Are we meant to see these storylines as anything more than perfunctory excuses to give the characters something to talk about when they’re not fighting off undead baddies?

Fraser, to his credit, maintains the right spirit- he’s never been a great actor, but he’s always been at ease working with special effects, and he’s good at winking at the story when need be. But Bello’s incarnation of Evie feels out of place here. As an actress, I prefer Bello to her predecessor Rachel Weisz, but whereas Weisz demonstrated a comic verve that turned the character from a standard-issue damsel into sort of an eccentric, Bello instead makes Evie a tough babe who can fight alongside the boys. More politically correct, certainly, but not especially entertaining either. And if Bello’s character feels out of place, Ford’s just doesn’t work at all. It doesn’t help that Ford is under the impression he’s meant to be a straight-up action hero here, which sort of throws a wet blanket over the proceedings.

In many ways, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is the most ambitious entry in the series, beginning with establishing the film’s Chinese setting (Egypt is an obvious fit with mummies, but history-deficient audiences need a little more convincing when you move them elsewhere). But while Cohen goes to great lengths to situate his story in a Chinese context, it’s rarely convincing, thanks in no small part to subpar special effects. The Mummy impressed me with its CGI back in the day, but here the effects look shoddy and cartoonish. The problem with this is that the movie clearly wants us to be awestruck by the magnitude of the undead armies or the scope of its far-flung locations. Unfortunately, there’s a high-gloss sheen on practically everything that was computer-generated, and it’s difficult to be enraptured by something that’s obviously made out of 1s and 0s. Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a step above The Mummy Returns, but it’s still pretty shabby goods, and I’m hoping the film’s abrupt ending means that the series has finally drawn to a close.

Rating: 4 out of 10.

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