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Third Time's Not the Charm July 30, 2008
by Samir S. Patel

Mummy fails to live up to great potential in Tomb of the Dragon Emperor


The first two movies in the Mummy franchise strayed from the traditional lumbering-ghoul-in-rags of classic film horror. Imhotep was a more virile and powerful villain, so stars Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz had more action-packed sequences to mug and flirt through. Those movies have aged rather well--I stop clicking when one turns up on basic cable. The third installment, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which opens Friday, August 1, drifts farther from the traditional mummy formula, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. Director Rob Cohen sets the action in China, trades rags for terracotta, and casts Jet Li as a karate-kicking badass of resurrected evil. A great concept, but the film squanders this infusion of new blood in a clattering wreck of mystical hoo-ha, odd decisions, and miserably unconvincing dialogue.

The movie begins with some fantasy history featuring Li as a tyrannical emperor obsessed with immortality. He and his army of conquest are cursed to spend eternity encased in terracotta by Michelle Yeoh's kindly witch. So the dragon emperor is not a mummy--not really--but the film's dialogue goes to great lengths to remind us constantly that he and his undead army are "mummies." Over and over again the word is repeated as if audiences might be confused otherwise.

The year is 1947, and the heroes of the first film, Fraser as Rick O'Connell and Maria Bello, Weisz's replacement, as his book--and adventure--loving wife, Evelyn, are dealing with the boredom of mummy-free retirement. They take on an assignment to repatriate an artifact to China, a trip that both reunites them with their son Alex, played by Luke Ford, and sets off another world-threatening "mummy" resurrection. Good for them. I have to assume it is hard to keep the excitement in a romance born of gunfire, flesh-eating beetles, and ritual sacrifice.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is the latest of the mummy films starring Brendan Fraser as adventurer Rick O'Connell, but it departs from its two predecessors in director, cast, location, and bad guy. Have you seen all three? Take our poll...

Which did you like best?:
The Mummy
The Mummy Returns
Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Who was the better villain?:
The Dragon Emperor

Which would you rather fight?:
The jackal army of Anubis
The terracotta warriors

View Current Results

I've long thought that China's first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, would make a great villain for an archaeological adventure. He was a ruthless leader with little use for either personal freedom or compassion, and was buried in a booby-trapped tomb near a terracotta army--8,000 strong--to ensure his power in the afterlife. It would have made great fodder for Indiana Jones, so I was eager to see what Cohen would do with the terracotta army and a villain not-so-loosely based on Qin Shihuangdi, especially after speaking with him about his dedication to Chinese history (see "The Mummy Rises Again").

The tomb in which the fictional terracotta army resides bears little resemblance to the tight confines of the original in Xi'an, China, but it is a beautiful set that is true to the spirit of its source material. The shapes and poses of the soldiers, and the weapons they carry, look good. And while the original warriors were brightly painted (see "Purple Reign: How ancient Chinese chemists added color to the emperor's army"), Cohen can be forgiven for leaving them gray-brown, a better color for an army of the netherworld. The reveal of the tomb has all the stirring highs of archaeological discovery, even if the door was blown off with dynamite and certain details and traps are wrong or goofy. No real harm done--this movie is about humor, popcorn, digital effects, and things that go bang. And seeing the army in motion later in the film is exciting and intimidating, almost as if it was part of the vision of the emperor himself. What is wrong with the film is almost everything else.

The undead army, for all the money and care clearly invested in it, feels like an afterthought. Cohen has bloated the movie with everything else, from zombie hordes to father-son drama. The result is loud and befuddling, as the film sputters between three big action set pieces featuring cat-like yetis, unexplained dragons, and laughably clumsy expository dialogue. New magical powers are introduced moments before they become useful to the plot and much of the mystical content is arbitrary, lazy, or frustratingly inconsistent with itself.

The humor of the previous films is occasionally still there--in referring to a working girl in a nightclub, one character remarks that she is "a tomb in which many pharaohs have laid"--but loses all momentum as the movie lurches toward a climactic showdown and fails to resolve all the personal dramas it sets up. The strength of the original cast, from Fraser's chair-throwing and comic timing to Weisz's wide-eyed confidence, has been diluted. There are too many characters and ham-handed subplots, so nothing distinctive emerges. Among the O'Connells, Fraser is given too little to do, Bello can't fill the shoes she's been given, and Ford is forgettable and occasionally petulant. The use of Li and Yeoh is even more of a shame. Their startling physicality and screen presence are lost, and even their fight scenes--fans of Chinese movies know the balletic violence they are capable of--are choppy and confusing.

Seeing the movie can be a mildly entertaining way to beat a few hours of the summer heat, but the whole enterprise whiffs of missed opportunities. Despite a few moments of potential excitement and wonder, the terracotta army is underutilized. And the themes underlying the rise of the emperor (both fictional and historical)--the temptations of totalitarianism and the desire for immortality--are compelling but lost in something more cartoonish. Mao Zedong was instrumental in rehabilitating the image of Qin Shihuangdi as a man with vision, the ability to impose his will, and a desire to unify China and lead it back to greatness. A resurrected villain with those goals--and a cursed army to accomplish them--could have been subversive and interesting enough to carry much more of the film. But it is drowned out by the roars of avalanches and the sound of the O'Connells mowing down terracotta warriors with machine guns. It could have been so much more.

Samir S. Patel is an associate editor of ARCHAEOLOGY.