Monday, August 04, 2008

Film Review - THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR: Mummy Weariest...

Puking yaks and John Hannah... Holy Imhotep, it can only mean one thing: That The Mummy franchise has once again skulked into theatres, dragging a kicking and screaming Brendan Fraser along with it. Now, most of us assumed that Fraser and co. had ridden off into the sunset at the end of the gleefully moronic The Mummy Returns, a film that defied logical criticisms. Jeez, it starred The Rock’s head grafted onto a lobster tail for the love of Karloff! But, when summertime money (and pre-writer’s strike frenzy) calls, Universal will deliver. And deliver they have, a stupendous wonder of creative brain damage epically titled The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor.

I just want to go on the record as saying that the following paragraph or two will likely be the most idiotic string of sentences I ever type. *Ahem*... The plot of the third Mummy film begins with an epilogue of subtly racist silliness detailing the rule of the megalomaniacal Emperor Han (Jet Li for about 10 mins, 1’s & 0’s for the rest), who sought to destroy... freedom. Anyways, having mastered the elements, he longed for immortality so he could, um, continue his anti-freedom campaign. After seeking the aid of the local witch Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh), Emperor Han fell in love with the sexy spell-caster, but was heart-broken upon the discovery that she was carrying on a love affair with his right-hand man Ming Guo (Russell Wong). Taking the “Bro’s Before Ho’s” rule very seriously, Emperor Han had Ming murdered. However before he could off Zi Juan, she cast a spell that turned him and his entire army into Nestle Chocolate... Er... stone.

Flash forward a whole bunch of years, and we find our heroes from the first two Mummy instalments, Rick and Evelyn O’Connell (Brendan Fraser & Maria Bello) bored out of their minds in retirement. While Evelyn pens successful romance novels based on their previous adventures, Rick impales himself in the neck with fly-fishing lures (Funnier imagined than actually seen, trust me). When their rebellious son Alex (Luke Ford), who has skipped out of college and become an intrepid archaeologist, discovers the tomb of Emperor Han, Rick and Evelyn are, through means too convoluted to explain, reunited with their son and involved in Han’s resurrection into a walking, fire-tossing, face-chucking menace. Aided by Evelyn’s frenetic brother Jonathan (John Hannah) and a “mysterious” Asian ninja-girl (Isabella Leong), the O’Connell’s endeavour to stop Emperor Han from raising his undead army and becoming an unstoppable force capable of wiping the land of, you guessed it, freedom! ...I swear those story meetings must have been an alcohol-fuelled gas!

Look, I don’t expect brilliance from this series. I don’t even expect coherence! But where The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor goes wrong is that it fails to improve upon a single aspect of the prior two films. Hell, they couldn’t even be bothered getting a mummy this time around. Emperor Han is cursed, yes, but not actually mummified by any stretch of the imagination.

Now, I’d forgive this slight if there was anything worthwhile up on the screen, but director Rob Cohen (XXX, Stealth, Fast & The Furious) is so bankrupt for ideas that his flop-sweat stains the screen. He has millions of dollars at his disposal, a willing cast and the limits of his imagination, and what does he accomplish? A battle between Han’s army and the undead Great Wall builders that rips off the climactic war at the close of The Mummy Returns, the Emperor turning into King Ghidorah from the Godzilla pictures, a brief and underwhelming glance at Shangri-La that looks like a Windows ’95 screensaver and an ineptly staged martial arts dust-up between Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh that looks like it was shot on Ritalin. And while his battle scenes are epic in scope, they are also clumsily filmed and hard to follow. It’s as if Cohen mounted his camera to the top of a pogo-stick and bounced around the set, drunk on hyperactive merriment (and God knows what else). In fact, that single mental image is more entertaining that anything the film has to offer.

...Though it does have yetis! Yetis who are introduced almost arbitrarily into a major action scene with little explanation. Looking like giant CG house-cats, they leap and tumble all over the snowy Himalayan set and, in their proudest moment, after having kicked a baddie through goalpost-shaped architecture, excitedly make the “It’s Good!” football arm gesture. A bunch of hams, they are. Yet(i), why couldn’t they have been used for something interesting? Being nothing but a Plot Device, they help our heroes, then retreat. What a waste...

Despite all the lunacy, I have to give a lot of credit to Brendan Fraser. Homeboy knows how to hit his marks and appear to be involved with the nonsense around him. Whether taking pratfalls off tree-branches or shooting a fireworks-bazooka at Emperor Han, the guy is flawless. Even his lines, which range from hokey to head-slapping, are handled with aplomb and gusto. He’s the strength behind the series, and a major reason for my continued attendance (other than masochism).

Rachel Weisz, the lovely female lead of the first two is gone, and Maria Bello is a poor replacement. Despite good physicality in the action scenes, she’s too tough looking and stumbles over a British accent that veers into New Zealander and Australian territory. She says things like “This is going to be Haaaaaaaaaaaahd!”. Her rigidity and continuous stream of vocal perversions definitely hurt the sexiness of her character. Mummies are the only thing gettin’ raised in her presence, if ya catch my drift. I can’t believe I just wrote that... Look at what you made me do, Miss Bello.

Michelle Yeoh is acceptable, and manages to say unspeakable lines like “The Yetis will help us!” and make them sound convincing. The same more or less goes for Isabella Leong, Alex O’Connell’s love interest with a secret. She’s pleasant and tries her best with haphazard material. On the opposite corner, Luke Ford is the president of Blandsville. The 27-year-old Australian actor looks more like Fraser’s brother than son, and uses a weird Matt Damon impression in an attempt to be ruggedly endearing. Instead, he’s a like a 1940’s frat-boy, without charisma or personality. While Fraser can spin gold with C-level material, Ford is like a baboon rubbing sticks together. John Hannah’s role can be summed up in two words: Yak Vomit. The actor, cast as comic relief, has nothing funny to say and instead minces around frantically ("Spank my bum!") when not having heart-to-hearts with a yak named Gertrude. I’d critique Jet Li’s performance if he gave one, but he’s simply a marketing gimmick like the Rock was. His few on-screen moments are flat and lack any sense of menace or danger.

I’m well-aware that no one is going to go to see The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor for anything other than mindless entertainment (I hope). However, this has been a summer filled with great entertainments and creatively fulfilling blockbusters. If you must see a brain-dead action-extravaganza, go see Wanted! And if you’re too young for that one, read a book or rent Clash Of The Titans or Army Of Darkness. They’re infinitely funnier, goofily exciting and more imaginative than anything here. Despite a really lame sequel-set-up (“Mummies were soon found in Peru!”), I think it’s time to wrap this series up. And bury it. Where not even Brendan Fraser can find it...

1.5 out of 5