The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)
A New Evil Awakens.
The third and final installment in Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy trilogy — before Universal foolishly rebooted it in 2017 — The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is undoubtedly the most dissimilar of the lot. If you can recall, it was fraught with controversy around its release, which made me a little apprehensive about its very existence.
Firstly, the film is not written and directed by the godfather of the Mummy series, Sommers, who has very little to do outside of producing here. Although the absence of Sommers can certainly be felt, the more noticeable lack is that of star of Rachel Weisz, who cited problems with the script and the birth of her son as reasons for her departure. She’s been replaced by Maria Bello, who steps into the shoes of nerdy-librarian-turned-adventurer Evelyn O’Connell. And while Bello does okay, she can’t hold a candle to Weisz, who made the role her own.
Rumors of a not-so-great script also circled the internet for quite some time and were blamed for the film’s delayed production — this one came out seven years after 2001’s Returns. Much to my dismay, with Sommers’ stepping down, Rob Cohen jumped on board as director, a guy with a pretty stained reputation — anyone remember Stealth (2005)? The last significant change is the shift in the film’s setting, with moviemakers waving goodbye to the hot, sandy dunes of the Egyptian desert and moving the action to the Far East, basing this new Mummy character on the real-life emperor of the Qin dynasty Qin Shi Huang, who was buried amidst thousands of meticulously crafted and baked terra cotta soldier sculptures known as the Terracotta Army.
With negative buzz escalating, you can understand why any excitement for the project waned: this Mummy threequel was shaping up to be quite the shitshow — no Sommers, no Weisz, crappy script. Surprisingly, though, Cohen and his cast and crew manage to pull off the impossible, as The Mummy 3 is pretty darn entertaining despite its handful of blemishes; it has a unique enough flavor, and Cohen (who’s trying his darndest to mimic Sommers) does a commendable job delivering the goofy, all-out monster madness and thrilling action-adventure set-pieces synonymous with the series. So really, what’s there to whine about? This film could have been a lot worse!
Much like the previous chapters, the movie opens with a lengthy prologue where we’re whisked to ancient China and introduced to Jet Li’s tyrannical General Han, who unites the country’s kingdoms through war and murder, becoming the Dragon Emperor and eventually reigning over the land. After claiming victory, he buries and curses his dead enemies in the ground and constructs the Great Wall of China to entomb them, this fortification safeguarding his conquered provinces. If that weren’t enough, the warlord soon masters the traditional Chinese Wu Xing elements of fire, water, earth, wood, and metal. But with power comes fear and distrust, and the Dragon Emperor fears that his inevitable death will undo his countless accomplishments, realizing that his time on earth would not be long enough to fulfill all of his ambitions.
So, he summons a sorceress named Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh), who’s known for having learned the secret to eternal life. Although granting the Dragon Emperor immortality, Yuan defies her new master by having a surreptitious affair with his most trusted advisor and friend, General Ming (Russell Wong). This, of course, enrages the mad ruler, seeing as the sorceress was off-limits to any man. Soon enough, the Dragon Emperor executes Ming right before his lover’s eyes, even though he promises to spare the General if Yuan agrees to become his wife. Having the gift of foresight, Yuan casts a hidden spell on the Dragon Emperor, and when she fails to comply with his marriage orders, he strikes her with a dagger. That’s when the curse is ignited; the Dragon Emperor and his formidable legion are imprisoned in clay, becoming the Terracotta Army, and Yuan, though injured, mounts on her horse and flees.
We then fast forward to 1946, some 13 years after the events of The Mummy Returns, and Alex O’Connell (Luke Ford) — Rick and Evelyn’s little boy — is all grown up. Of course, he’s followed in the footsteps of his mom and dad and is now working as an archaeologist. We find him in pursuit of the Dragon Emperor’s crypt, accompanied by his professor Roger Wilson (David Calder), their expedition interrupted when a mysterious woman attacks the pair upon the tomb’s discovery. After successfully fending off the assault, Alex and his professor ship the coffin to Shanghai, China, where Alex meets up with Evelyn’s older brother Jonathan (John Hannah), who owns a nightclub there he’s named Imhotep’s, funded by the treasures obtained in the former film — apparently, this whole club plot thread was initially set for Returns but was later abandoned.
In the meantime, Rick (Brendan Fraser) — who’s fighting to find a relaxing pastime — and his wife Evie O’Connell (Maria Bello) — a successful novelist, making a name for herself by selling their ‘Mummy’ adventures as fiction — are struggling to adjust to a slower, calmer way of life, having hung up the towel as adventurers. The retirees, however, both spring back to life when the British government invites the pair to personally transport a priceless relic, a gemstone known as ‘The Eye of Shangri-La,’ to China’s central coast. Coincidentally, the age-old diamond is capable of resurrecting Emperor Han while pointing the way to Shangri-La, a place said to hold the Pool of Eternal Life. Our heroes accept the mission and travel to Shanghai, where they reunite with their son (whom they think is abroad studying, not digging up dead dudes) and Jonathan, learning that they’ve all been played by Alex’s archaeologist professor, Roger, who’s secretly associated with a rogue KMT military faction led by the misguided General Yang (Anthony Wong). The scheming General, you see, plans on using the Elixir of Life contained in the Eye to resurrect the mummified Dragon Emperor, financing Alex’s expedition and calling in the O’Connells to round up and bring together all the necessary artifacts. In the words of Rick O’Connell: ‘Here we go again!’
Penned by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar — two of the writers behind Sam Raimi’s acclaimed Spider-Man 2 (2004) — Tomb of the Dragon Emperor borrows a lot from the Mummy titles that preceded it, including the zany energy and grand sense of adventure, which scribes Gough and Millar, and filmmaker Cohen, fittingly inject into the proceedings. Granted, a bunch of ideas are blatantly rehashed — for starters, there’s that ill-fated love triangle thing again, almost ripped from the other Mummy films (this time it involves Han, Ming and the witch, rather than Imhotep, Anck-su-namun, and the Pharaoh), as well as the film’s general formula — but the expansive globetrotting, edge-of-your-seat action, and Oriental backdrop (switching out sand for snow is a plus) are enough to distract from these parallels.
On the action front, there’s an excellently choreographed horseback and chariot pursuit through the streets of Shanghai, ending in a disorderly fireworks display, and a nifty mid-movie scrap atop the Himalayas, where a group of digital Yetis assists our heroes. However, the highlight is an expensive-looking third act clash at the Great Wall, where Han’s computer-generated terracotta troops battle it out against a CGI army of the undead, commanded by the reanimated General Ming. And in true Mummy fashion, we’re hit with a host of creepy supernatural beasties, including a gnarly three-headed dragon — no rubber-mouthed mummies this time around, though.
Something else that’s slightly different is the overall direction the series tries to take — let me explain. While Sommers’ Mummy movies are more or less centered on Imhotep, this third part drops that storyline altogether (which, IMO, wrapped up nicely in Returns). Instead, it continues the exploits of Rick and Evie O’Connell à la Indiana Jones. In reality, General Han/ the Dragon Emperor is more of a supernatural baddie (he’s a shapeshifter with exceptional swordsman skills) than your traditional ‘mummy’ monster. But this focus-shift to the O’Connells feels fitting and natural, especially if the series had gone on — remember, the first Indy film was originally titled Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) before being marketed as Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark later down the line. So perhaps a similar route could have been taken here if things continued.
The performances are decent on the whole, particularly from Fraser — who’s given more of an emotional arc as Rick, who, in his older age, is finding it hard to connect with and show affection towards his son — and Hannah — doing the comic relief thing; either way, both look happy to be back in their respective roles. In terms of newcomers, Aussie Luke Ford, The Black Balloon (2008), imbues Alex O’Connell with a playful sense of adventure similar to that of his father, even though he’s nowhere near as memorable as his younger counterpart in The Mummy Returns. Given that the action has moved to the East, a heap of Asian stars have joined the cast; the most notable is, of course, Jet Li, in the titular role, and he does well with the material provided (although, more martial arts would have been nice), so too does Chinese superstar Michelle Yeoh, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), who plays ancient mystic Zi Yuan. The rest of the Eastern stars, unfortunately, are left in the dust; it’s as if filmmakers are checking off diversity quota before it became hip, obviously trying to give the film more of an international appeal — a prime example is Isabella Leong, who’s given a thankless role as a love interest for Alex. The only new face worthy of note is Liam Cunningham, Clash of the Titans (2010), who has a small but amusing part as crackpot pilot named Mad Dog Maguire, tasked with flying our protagonists to Tibet, a stopover while on their journey to Shangri-La.
A highly enjoyable action-adventure romp, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is a worthy inclusion to Sommers’ Mummy saga, even if it falls short of the greatness of its predecessors. It’s also got a stack of fun in-jokes and clever nods to the original two films — Evelyn, for example, is revealed in a tongue-in-cheek way: ‘Honestly, I can say she’s a completely different person,’ Bello’s Evie remarks, commenting on the inspiration behind the female character in her Mummy novels at one of her book readings (the joke, of course, is that Bello has replaced Weisz from the first two films).
Ultimately, Stephen Sommers’ The Mummy series (1999 – 2008) stands besides fantasy-action-adventure greats like visual effects maestro Ray Harryhausen’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1973) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977). Sure, there’s less of an emphasis on horror in Sommers’ Mummy films, the Universal monster rebranded to attract a broader more global audience, but the franchise fully succeeds in mixing state of the art VFX with stunning action, comedy, romance, and elements of the supernatural and Egyptian/ Asian lore, creating a genuinely great all-ages blockbuster movie experience! If you’ve got any beef with this third serving, check out the Tom Cruise-starring Mummy remake — it’s a skin crawler for all the wrong reasons!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by S-Littner