Thursday, August 07, 2008

A 'tomb' best left alone

This summer has had a surprisingly high quota of quality popcorn films from “Iron Man” to “The Dark Knight.” We were given blockbusters with a bit more brains and imagination than usual, “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” lacks both.

Like its predecessors, the third movie in this modern “Mummy” franchise has more in common with “Indiana Jones” than Boris Karloff. This series was never high-brow entertainment, but the first time Brendan Fraser and crew suited up to battle the undead in 1999’s “The Mummy” there was a sense of fun and energy that carried the day. Few would confuse it with a good film, but it succeeded at being a mindless diversion.

The same could not be said for 2001’s “The Mummy Returns,” which replayed the first film but added more of everything including an annoying kid and proved that more is definitely less. At least this new film benefits from a new villain and a new setting: China.

The film opens promisingly with a prologue showing the rise to power of the Dragon Emperor (Jet Li) and how he and his army were cursed by an immortal witch (Michelle Yeoh, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). Following “The Forbidden Kingdom,” which also featured Li, and “Kung-Fu Panda” this is the third Hollywood film to borrow Eastern mythology and imagery this year. Where “Forbidden Kingdom” and “Kung-Fu Panda” was fun and loose, “Dragon Emperor” is dull and stiff.

After the prologue things jump to 1946 and start getting clunky. Rick and Evelyn O’Connell (Fraser and Maria Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz) have retired in England after a career of espionage during World War II. They are shaken out of their boring new lives by one last call to duty. They are to bring an artifact to China. They agree, because, after all, Evelyn’s brother (John Hannah) has a night club there they can visit.

Unbeknownst to them, their now-grown son (Luke Ford) has followed in the family business and has discovered the tomb of the dragon emperor. A family reunion is just as inevitable as the awakening of the now mummified dragon warrior. Yeoh’s immortal daughter (Isabella Leong) is thrown in as a love interest for Ford.

There are special effects galore, but there’s little excitement because it is all so familiar and there’s no vision or sweep behind the staging of these elaborate action set pieces. “Hellboy II” was equally light on its plot, but made up for it with astonishing and inventive visuals.

A subplot with a group of friendly yeti is the most entertaining aspect of the film simply because it is so completely out of left field. Sure the appearance of abominable snowmen is utterly laughable, but at this point in the movie you’re desperate for anything new.

The acting, let’s just be blunt about it, is bad. Movies like this don’t need Oscar-worthy performances, but there’s a certain tongue-in-cheek acting style that if done right can go a long way. Fraser, who is usually the go to guy for live-action-cartoon heroics, seems bored this time around.

Bello is a talented actress as her work in movies such “The Cooler” and “History of Violence” can prove, but you’d never know it based on her work here. Burdened with a terrible fake British accent, she seems uncomfortable and gives a completely flat performance. Good thing she’s an established talent because this does nothing to further her career. It may even be a step backward.

Ford looks dashing, and that’s about it. His love subplot with Leong is undernourished and completely hollow. There are way too many poorly written lovey-dovey scenes between the two couplings, and none of them have a single genuine moment. All these scenes do is drag the pacing down.

It is only Li and Yeoh who bring any sort of flavor to the proceedings. Li and Yeoh are both legends within the world of martial art films and they provide a touch of grace and class to the proceedings, unfortunately their screen time is limited to the beginning and end. The two share an all too brief sword fight that for martial arts fans may be worth checking, but give it some time and I’m sure it’ll show up on youtube.

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