Mummy, The: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008): Franchise’s Third and Weakest Chapter, Starring Brandon Frasier

Brendan Fraser, one of the young actors working today who can do action and comedy dashingly, with the right balance of the serio, comedic, and satiric, deserves better than he gets in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the third and weakest chapter in the successful film franchise.

Anything goes in this “Mummy”: West and East, action and comedy, swords and guns, creatures and humans, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, mortals and immortals, army of the dead and army of the live. In other words, producer Stephen Sommers (who had helmed the previous segments), director Rob Cohen, and scripters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar don’t adhere by (or believe in) any ground rules. The end result is noisy, nonsensical flick that consists entirely of big action set-pieces, half of which are silly, derivative, and even cheesy.

We don’t expect a movie like “The Mummy” to offer a cerebral experience; just to entertain us in a reasonable way. As a popcorn summer movie, this segment occupies the bottom layer of the rapidly growing genre, with “Iron Man” and The Dark Knight” at the top echelon.

Overall, it may be one of the worst movies of the summer.

The studio boasts the commercial success of the adventure franchise, which has earned more than $800 million at the box office worldwide. But do they think that the public will embrace anything with that title and that star Is there any responsibility to deliver a film that is at least professional and not utterly mindless

This is arguably the worst picture that action director Rob Cohen has made, after “The Fast and the Furious” (still his best work, in my view), “xXx,” and “Stealth.” Cohen claims to be an anthropology student, with special interest in and knowledge of Asia, but he shows no particular sensitivity to matter of history, myth, and legend, and by his own standards, the filmmaking is rather poor.

In a foreword to the movie-book for “The Mummy,” he observes: “I have a deep love of Chinese culture and a complete fascination with the sweep and tumult of its 5,000-year history. Since high school, when my mother began painting Chinese watercolors as a hobby, China had occupied my imagination and reading time. I was intrigued by various dynasties, especially the Tang and the Ming with their early explorers discovering Indonesia, India, Africa and the giant–treasure ships–that may have circumvented the world long before Magellan, and might have reached the Americas long before Columbus.”

Set in 1946, the saga begins in the neon-lit streets of post-War Shanghai and its alluring nightclubs and Western music before switching to ancient China and the Himalayas. Fraser, currently seen in the far more enjoyable 3-D adventure, “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” returns as the courageous explorer Rick O’Connell, assigned to combat the resurrected Chinese Emperor (played by martial arts star Jet Li, who recently appeared in “The Forbidden Kingdom”).

Rachel Weisz had dropped off the project and now the smart archaeologist wife Evelyn is played (disappointingly) by Maria Bello (who was so good in David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence”). Having been married for decades, the couple reaches middle-age and the boredom that comes with familiarity. They are also concerned parents, as their son Alex (Luke Ford) has not been in touch lately. The way the situation is set up, you can bet that there will be a cute, improbable family reunion.

The plot of this mishmash of action-adventure is grounded in family melodrama. Two sets of parents and two sets of children that are bound to meet and fall in love-perhaps even change the fate of Chinese civilization. As if there are not enough family members, Evelyn’s bumbling fool brother Jonathan (John Hannah) joins in, mostly offering out-of-place remarks in the manner of a British comedy of manners.

This time around, Rick’s task is to stop a mummy awoken from a 2,000-year-old curse, which threatens to plunge the world into his cruel, merciless service. Early on we are introduced to Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh, of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and “Memoirs of a Geisha” fame), as a wronged sorceress, doomed to spend eternity in suspended animation–China’s ruthless Dragon Emperor has laid his forgotten warriors for eons, entombed in clay as a vast and silent Terracotta Army.

When the reckless Alex is tricked into awakening the ruler from eternal slumber, he is forced to seek the help of the only people who know more than he does about fighting the undead: his parents. And so, in similar plot lines to Spielberg’s latest “Indian Jones” chapter, at least one third of the narrative is based on arguing and bickering between father and son in half-humorous, quasi-tongue-in-cheek manner. Their growing bond, which has been latent, is put to real test, when one of them risks his life and gets wounded.

In contrast, the relationship between the sorceress and her daughter (Isabella Leong) takes a different shape. It’s done as a “mythic” melodrama about love, sacrifice, and immortality, and the transition between the Western and Eastern families are jarringly abrupt, not least because of their different tone.

As the monarch goes back to life, Rick and Alex realize that his quest for world domination has intensified over time. Striding the East with unimaginable supernatural powers, the Emperor intends to rouse his legion as an otherworldly force–unless the O’Connells can stop him first. Rest of the story doesn’t have to be spelled out.

The carelessness of the writers is disappointing, as they have contributed in the past to some workable scenarios of big-budget, effects-driven features, such as “Spider-Man 2” and the TV series “Smallville.”

After an hour or so, the filmmakers give up completely on plot and characters, and the last reel is a series of poorly related action set-pieces that include surviving a dangerous snow avalanche, march of the army of the dead, evocation of supernatural powers.

The movie does offer a few moments of joy, such as the fierce, thrilling battle between Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li atop a mountain. Some of the good visual imagery borrows heavily from Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

And while Bello, Hannah, and Ford are routine, it’s a pleasure to observe Fraser, acting in straight face a preposterous part, and the always graceful and beautiful Michelle Yeoh, as the ageless sorceress who’s responsible for transforming the Emperor into a terracotta prisoner after he destroys her happiness with the only man she ever loved.

Future prospects

Popular film franchises often run out of steam, energy, and ideas in their third installment, as was evident in the “Rush Hours,” “Austin Powers” and “Shrek” series. Yet the last scene suggests that there may be a fourth chapter of the rusty “Mummy,” set in Peru.

For those who care for details

Among the characters newly introduced to the series are Ming Guo (Russell Wong), Zi Yuan’s true love and the Emperor’s loyal servant betrayed by his ruler; Rick’s old friend and pilot Desi (Liam Cunningham), and acclaimed Chinese actor Isabella Leong, making her American debut as the Dragon Emperor’s ageless tomb guardian Lin.

Cast Rick O’Connell – Brendan Fraser Emperor – Jet Li Evelyn O’Connell – Maria Bello Jonathan Carnahan – John Hannah Zi Yuan – Michelle Yeoh Alex O’Connell – Luke Ford General Yang – Chau Sang Anthony Wong Lin – Isabella Leong Maguire – Liam Cunningham Roger Wilson – David Calder Ming Guo – Russell Wong


A Universal release, presented in association with Relativity Media, of a Sommers Co./Alphaville production. Produced by Sean Daniel, James Jacks, Stephen Sommers, Bob Ducsay. Executive producer, Chris Brigham. Co-producers, Lei Qin, Doris Tse, Josette Perrotta. Directed by Rob Cohen. Screenplay, Alfred Gough, Miles Millar. Camera: Simon Duggan. Editors: Joel Negron, Kelly Matsumoto. Music: Randy Edelman. Production designer: Nigel Phelps. Supervising art director: Isabelle Guay. Art directors: Jean-Pierre Paquet, Nicolas LePage, Real Proulx, David Gaucher. Set designers: Mario Chabot, Jean-Francois Gadoury, Martin Gagne, Brent Lambert, Celine Lampron, Lucie Paquet, Guy Pigeon, Lucie S. Tremblay, Alex Touikan, Viorel Indries. Head set decorators: Eve Boulonne, Anne Kuljian. Set decorators: Martine Kazemirchuk, Philippe Lord, Daniel Carpentier; costume designer, Sanja Milkovic Hays. Sound: Louis Marion. Sound designer/supervisor, Bruce Stambler; re-recording mixers, Gary Summers, Scott Millan, Daniel Leahy. Visual effects supervisors: Joel Hynek, Matthew Butler, Derek Spears. Visual effects and animation: Rhythm & Hues Studios. Special digital effects and digital animation: Digital Domain. Special visual effects: Illusion Arts Digital, Syd Dutton and Billy Taylor. Visual effects: CIS Visual Effects Group, Pacific Title & Art Studio.

MPAA Rating: PG-13. Running time: 112 Minutes.