The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) – Directed by Rob Cohen – Starring Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, John Hannah, Luke Ford, Michelle Yeoh, Russell Wong, and Isabella Leong.
Where TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR goes wrong for me is how it takes what was so fun about the previous movies and darkens it for no real payoff; in both THE MUMMY and THE MUMMY RETURNS, we had fun characters who enjoyed the adventure they were on and, most importantly, enjoyed adventuring with each other.
Such is not the case as TOMB opens. Rick and Evelyn O’Connell (Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello, stepping in for Rachel Weisz) are retired adventurers, living in their humongous estate in England. They get a visit from the British government, thanking them for some spy work they did and asking that they complete one final mission for them – bring the Eye of Shangri-La to China. While their faces clearly say they want to do it, they’ve made a promise to each other pre-movie that they were done with this crazy life. As a result, Evey writes novels based on her adventures (she denies the novels are based on her to her adoring fans, which ends up being a nice nod to the fact that Bello has replaced Weisz) and Rick spends his time trying to find a hobby.
It’s all kinds of awful watching this once fun couple reduced to this self-imposed misery. Clearly, Rick and Evey still love each other, but just as clearly they need adventuring to provide their relationship with a spark. Rick wants to have sex, but Evey has to write. After staring at her typewriter, unable to come up with a story (apparently her spy adventures are not novel-worthy), she picks up a sword and starts play-fighting by herself (get it?), which works up enough sexual mojo in her that she goes looking for Rick.
Only to find him sleeping in a chair.
While the O’Connells are busy becoming ordinary citizens, their son Alex (Luke Ford) has become a college dropout who’s searching for buried treasure in China. He finds the Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and there’s the requisite booby traps and mysterious figure cloaked in black who tries to stop him. She doesn’t, and Rick gets the big statue of the Emperor back to Singapore where not only does his uncle Jonathan (John Hannah) own a nightclub, but Alex is busy trying to pick up loose women after his successful adventure.
Nice family reunion, eh?
The O’Connells then spend the next few minutes yelling and fighting with each other. Alex is a complete dick, Evey is a smothering mother, and Rick is a failed dad still trying to boss his son around.
It’s painful to watch. Back in RETURNS, the O’Connells were a joy to watch, whether they were fighting mummies or, even more importantly, simply hanging out with one another. They were a fun, adventurous family who loved their life, even if mummies occasionally came to life in an attempt to kill them. I don’t understand why the filmmakers decided to take this turn into the grim life – it’s like they didn’t understand what made the first two movies so special. It’s thoroughly disappointing what’s happened to the O’Connells: Evey and Rick have become miserable and Alex has turned into an unlikable brat. Somehow, between RETURNS and TOMB, Rick and Evey became horrible parents and Alex became a horrible kid.
All of that being said, however, once we get the family back together and they start adventuring, things start to improve. I believe TOMB is a film whose reputation has been determined largely by this incredible misstep of an opening. No, what comes next doesn’t elevate to the level of either of the previous MUMMY movies, but TOMB still provides a decent amount of thrills and gets better as it goes and the troubles between the O’Connells thaw. Alex and Rick slowly rebuild their bond, Rick and Evey recapture their mojo, and the performances of Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh make the non-O’Connell parts of the movie enjoyable.
The O’Connells, Jonathan, and that female ninja, Lin (Isabella Leong) head off to stop the reborn Emperor Han (Jet Li) from gaining immortality. Lin is the daughter of Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh), the guardian of Shangri-La. Zi and Lin are immortal thanks to the healing powers of Shangri-La, and they’re thousands of years old. There’s a really great action sequence at a tower in the Himalayas involving Yetis, but our adventurers fail to stop Han. He places the Eye of Shangri-La on top of the tower and learns the way to the fabled location.
The non-action sequences continue to be clunky – Evey refuses to trust Lin because Alex has the hots for her, Rick struggles with his failures as a dad, and Alex struggles to get in Lin’s pants – but at least the film gains some momentum.
One huge problem I have with this film is that the script constantly asks its actors to do things they don’t do well, and doesn’t take advantage of the things they can do well. Bello has too much force to convincingly pull off the doting mother, Fraser has too much enthusiasm to pull off the failed dad, and Ford has … well, I don’t know Ford’s resume enough to know what he does well, but I do know that he’s completely unconvincing at garnering any kind of real romantic rapport with Isabella Yeong. Honestly, young Alex had more chemistry with Anck-Su-Namun/Meela last film than college Alex has with Leong in this film.
The film doesn’t take advantage of Jet Li, either. Good on Li for playing a stone cold bad guy, and I don’t think he ever earned an easier paycheck in his life. He basically stands there for the whole movie, occasionally grunting something or waving his arms to do magic, but half the time he’s either a CGI dragon or a CGI mummy.
The film also robs Zi Yuan of a reunion with her lover and Lin’s father, General Ming (Russell Wong). When Zi sacrifices her and Lin’s immortality to raise an undead army to fight General Han’s forces, Ming comes back to “life”/life, but the movie, almost unbelievably, never allows them a proper reunion.
I know this sounds like a rather negative review, but TOMB isn’t a horrible movie. There’s lots of missteps, but it’s a great-looking film that provides a bit of fun and some really great action sequences. Yeah, it’s hard to get too excited about a movie that replaces Rachel Weisz with Maria Bello, Freddie Boath with Luke Ford, and exchanges Oded Fehr for Isabella Yeong, and yeah, there’s a bunch of stuff here that feels like it was done to adhere to formula (look, another crazy pilot!), but while TOMB is a relative disappointment compared to what came before, I’m not going to complain too hard about a fun adventure romp with Rick O’Connell, Yetis, John Hannah, a three-headed dragon, Michelle Yeoh, and all this gorgeous cinematography.
By the end of TOMB, I was having a good enough time that I’m looking forward to a fourth MUMMY movie. Rather than serving as the final act in a trilogy, I think of TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR as the first film in a new series. Maybe we’ll get them and maybe we won’t (the film did rake in $400 million worldwide), and if we do, it’s possible people will look back at TOMB as a clumsy first step in a new direction; if not, whatever the rest of the world thinks, I’ll continue to enjoy TOMB as a mildly enjoyable movie that’s good enough to bring us Yetis and a three-headed dragon.
THE MUMMY REVIEW INDEX:
THE MUMMY: No Harm Ever Came From Reading a Book
THE MUMMY RETURNS: No Harm Ever Came From Opening a Chest
THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR: Good Going, Dad, You’ve Raised Another Mummy