Sunday, October 30, 2011

A Layperson's Review Of The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor: Another Boring Action-Adventure Flick!

The Good: Moments of performance, Moments of special effects
The Bad: Predictable plot, Lack of character development, Sacrifices development in favor of special effects
The Basics: Uninspired and poorly acted, The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor attempts to shower the viewer with movement and special effects to cover a poor script.

[Note: This review was originally written when "The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor" was first released to theaters and was the first of the franchise I saw. I've kept the language of the review intact because I actually enjoy the flavor of it. I hope you do, too.]

In a summer that has been characterized more for its disappointments than its roaring successes, I am finding myself wondering when we might see the influx of fresh, new, original movies from talented new writers and directors coming to theaters as a result of last year's writer's strike. I mean, when the regulars strike, isn't that when the new talent pops up and wows the executives? There must have been a lot of meetings canceled by writers on the picket line . . . Instead, we have had a summer wherein the tried and true writers and directors have disappointed movie goers with terrible movies like Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (reviewed here!).

And the thing is, if you have been participating in Summer Blockbuster Season, odds are, you have seen previews for The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor. That being the case, most people who have seen a film this summer have seen The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor. Sadly, my impression upon seeing the preview to the movie - every time I saw it - was "They just showed the whole movie!" Unfortunately, I was not far off. And I was certainly not far enough off to enjoy the midnight screening I went to in Minneapolis of the movie. I came to The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor a virgin to The Mummy franchise (reviewed here!). In fact, I was given the opportunity to see the prior three outings before going to the screening and I declined. That way, rather than being a comparison, I could truly speak for how the movie held up on its own. Sadly, it didn't.

Alex O'Connell, a young adventurer, is exploring ruins in China when he discovers a chamber of terra cotta warriors. When the cursed leader, the Chinese Emperor Han suddenly sprouts back to life, he continues the megalomaniacal quest to take over the world that he began before he was cursed and mummified. Undead and powerful, the Dragon Emperor and his legions of warriors - also reanimated by Alex's clumsiness - begin to illustrate a capacity for world domination and Alex flees in desperation to his father. Rick O'Connell, a noted archaeologist and adventurer, has experience with returning the dead to the un-dead and when Alex returns home to beg his help, he jumps into action.

Soon, the O'Connell family is all in China, hunting clues to stop the Dragon Emperor, while Han returns to the ways that got him cursed in the first place. The O'Connells take on a sorceress ally who has intimate knowledge of Han's curse and works to thwart him . . .

Where to start with the problems of The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor? Between this and Swing Vote (reviewed here!), this is hardly the best weekend of the summer and what one suspects Hollywood needs desperately is that new, fresh talent with an eye for what has not been seen before. This is not that movie. In fact, it is plagued by moments that feel like it is utterly the same movie we have seen before in virtually every other action-adventure film ever produced. Indeed, there is nothing truly new in The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor and it comes through on all of the important levels of plot, character and acting and the supplemental front of special effects.

First, I have some respect for Eastern philosophy and for a movie taking place in China, the way maturity and age is revered is almost entirely lacking. For sure, the O'Connells employ a respectable woman whose powers only come from the wisdom of age (sort of), but the lack of respect illustrated between Alex and Rick is very American. Instead of having any sense of reverence for Rick's experience, Alex is reluctant and arrogant, defiant while requesting his aid. And Rick doesn't help things. He is characterized as somewhat buffoonish in too many parts. Sure, he looks good in a tuxedo and when he has to move, he has all of the choreographed grace of an action hero, but the character is otherwise dull. Indeed, the best elements of Rick are all characterized by his ability to move and movement does not equal character.

As one condemned to any number of movies this summer, I am getting sick of writers and directors who seem to work by that equation under the mistaken belief that those who watch movies will accept bland characters so long as they run, jump and shoot things. I do not.

The only thing less fortunate than Rick's characterization is that of the characters who accompany him. Evelyn lets off a number of wry comments and Alex seems dimly aware of the consequences of his actions early in the movie. Indeed, amid all of the forced family drama between Rick and Alex, one almost finds the rise of Han forgettable. And that type of conflict and bland acceptance that fathers and sons will not see eye-to-eye is anything but entertaining; indeed, we have seen it before. I am certain that there are any number of comparisons between the Indiana Jones films and the movies of The Mummy, but the truth is, that would be a false analogy. The Indiana Jones movies (especially the first one and, admittedly, even the latest cinematic outing) had some substance, some philosophy, something the movie wanted to say other than "hey, look at Harrison Ford run around with various costars!" The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor has nothing so smart as Nazis looking for a supernatural way to win the war and Indiana Jones fighting for freedom by recovering paranormal artifacts.

Moreover, Emperor Han is given nothing so glamorous as a reason for wanting to take over the world. World domination no longer satisfies the viewer for motivation; don't obsessive warlords realize yet that it is easy to take over the world, but impossible to keep control of it once you do?! Emperor Han seems to be bent on taking over the world and employing his seemingly invincible undead warriors simply by rote; it is what he did before, so he'll continue doing it now. The best villains have a reason and one that makes them seem more human. The reason the world isn't overrun by impractical jerks who are trying to take everything over is because it is not human nature to want to control everything (and fortunately for all of us, those who are most prepossessed toward the type of egomania needed to believe that their way is unquestionably the right and only way, tend to not get very far - usually Congress, where they are met by 534 people like them and accomplish nothing!). Watching The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor, then, is made all the less entertaining by the monolithically bad way Han is portrayed.

At least it does not challenge Jet Li to have to do much outside yell, fight and look menacing.

As for the special effects, they are able to cover up virtually everything, save the lousy acting. The performers do their best to look like they know what they are seeing when they end up in giant scenes filled with virtual characters, but there are many, many places where the characters seem detached from the world they supposedly occupy. This is an unforgivable sin in this day in age and The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor cheapens the serious movies that use effects to simply augment the good story. Here, the massive armies of undead are asked to carry the weight of the lousy script and they are crushed under that. Far too often, the special effects look like special effects and the real flesh and blood people only serve to remind the viewer of how unreal much of the rest of the movie actually is.

That said, I will admit that the dragon - even when improperly lit for the surroundings it occupies - does look pretty cool. Sadly, its presence does not justify the rest of the movie.

Brendan Fraser is saddled with the duty of selling the reality of The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor and unfortunately, through much of the film, he seems tired and bored of the role himself. For sure, his performance is different from, say, his role in Still Breathing (reviewed here!); there is nothing quirky or quiet in his performance. Instead, he is forceful, physical and he has a somewhat ridiculous obsession with screwing his face up to emote. Fraser might be an adept physical comedian, but at many points in Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor, the role does not call for that type of performance, yet that is what he gives.

The others range from adequate to terrible, from those who are comfortable working in environments opposite nothing and guessing (Jet Li) and those who seem stymied by how to act when the setting and adversaries are not present (Luke Ford). Much has been made about Maria Bello, who plays Evelyn. She apparently takes over the role from another actress and - because I have not seen those movies - I shall not comment on that. Bello does seem a little stiff though.

Some of that stiffness is hard to blame on Bello; she is given a role that is very much a sidekick and sharing that role with Ford. In other words, her stiffness might well come from being uncomfortable with having so little to do.

Sadly, by the end of the movie she is not along; that is how the viewer feels. There is a sense that we have wasted quite a bit of time and as one who has not seen the others, I am wary of wasting my time on them. One would like to believe if this is the third or fourth movie in the franchise that there was an inherent greatness in what came before. Instead, that greatness is absent in this movie.

On DVD, The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor comes with a substantive bit of bonus features. In addition to the usual deleted and extended scenes that seem invariable with this type of movie, there is a remarkably good commentary track with director Rob Cohen. As well, there are interesting special effects featurettes and stunt featurettes that make one appreciate better what ended up on screen in the film. As well, there is an interesting featurette on the casting (or recasting!) and overall, the DVD bonuses stack up rather well.

For other works written by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, check out my reviews of:
I Am Number Four
Spider-man 2


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2008 W.L. Swarts.  May not be reprinted without permission.

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