The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2 Disc Deluxe Edition) Review
It all comes down to how one feels about the Yeti. Your reaction to the unexpected appearance of a gaggle of abominable snowmen half way through this latest chapter in the Mummy franchise acts, I think, as a useful gauge as to what your opinion of the film as a whole will be and how far your tolerance will stretch. Judging from online reaction and media reviews, it would be fair to say that that impression was not entirely favourable: “Tiresome,” “unsatisfying” and “a threadbare toss-off” were some of the kinder plaudits Rob Cohen’s movie received when it was first released, and its domestic box office of just over two thirds its budget suggests that the audience agreed. Sadly, opinion hasn’t improved in the months since for at the time of writing, it has a gloriously low rating of 14% at Rotten Tomatoes, and 5.2 at the normally more generous IMDB, a score which, if your film isn’t by either Uwe Boll or the Asylum, is about as bad as it gets. So I’m guessing most people didn’t go with the rampaging fur balls, which is a shame because they simultaneously manage to sum up why the movie isn't very good and why one might be able to forgive it for its failings.
Picking up thirteen years after the events of The Mummy Returns this instalment opens with our heroes Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and wife Evie (Maria Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz) bored out of their brains living on an English country estate while their now adult son Alex (Luke Ford) is half way across the world, following in the footsteps of his old man by digging up the long dead remains of ancient rulers, in this case the Chinese Emperor Qin (Jet Li.) Unfortunately for Junior an errant general in the Chinese army has plans to resurrect the long dead conqueror and have him take over the world, and as luck would have it it falls to his parents to transport the mystical doodad needed for such an operation back to China. Thus the entire O'Connell clan are present when Qin wakes up, and soon Rick and co find themselves pursuing the newly revived emperor (who, let’s face it, is not really a mummy at all) as he races across the country first to get to the Hidden Cave of Shangri-La, where his resurrection will be completed, and then on to his tomb where he will revive his terracotta army and thus unleash chaos upon us all.
And yes, most of the criticisms levelled at the film are perfectly valid if somewhat overharsh. Coming in you know exactly what you are going to get from an episode in this franchise, from the obligatory opening flashback set in ancient times through to a climax in which two CGI armies face off against each other while Rick and co take on the big bad. To quibble that this latest story doesn’t deviate from the formula (and it really, really doesn’t) is like complaining when you’ve gone to a fast food restaurant that the food isn’t quite up to snuff. Had scripters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, whose work is variable but who still have kudos from Spider-man 2 if nothing else, varied too much, there would have been complaints that this doesn’t feel like the past two films in the series.
Indeed, while it is admittedly not the best example of the genre, I would argue there are only two major problems that threaten to scupper the film. The first is Mario Bello. As she has proved time and again in far more serious fare, Bello is a very capable actress but she is completely miscast here, having none of the spunky charm of Weisz or any sort of chemistry at all with Fraser. To try and explain the fact Evie’s character is very different, she and others have said in interviews that her version is not the same as Weisz’s – erm, why? If one was going to essentially create a new character then why not go the whole hog, rather than call her the same but blatantly be anything but? She makes for mildly distressing viewing, as while one can see her trying extremely hard, especially in the more light-hearted moments, there’s a sense that she knows what she is doing isn’t working, making her performance stiff and unnatural (it doesn’t help that her attempts at sounding English joins the lengthy pantheon of Terrible British Accents.) The other, slightly surprising, problem is that the design work of the big sets is notably nondescript and unimpressive. A film like this which exists solely for the spectacle depends on a large part for having suitably picturesque and striking tombs to raid, but there is nothing here that is remotely memorable. The worst offender is a laughably boring version of Shangri-La, but the other sets in which the big action sequences take place, from the overly cluttered burial chamber through to the blandly unimaginative Tibetan monastery, make for a visually unexciting adventure.
But aside from that the rest is perfectly fine fare, typical of the genre, with Rob Cohen adding another average actioner to his CV. There’s a chase through the streets of Shanghai, a shootout in the snowy Himalayas, and the CGI army showdown, with each setpiece seeing Jet Li’s Emperor gradually shedding his stony exterior, although the actor himself never manages to break through the CGI to impart any sort of personality on his villain (indeed, the director keeps up a fairly relentless pace to substitute for the fact that none of the characters are little more than puppets going through the motions.) It’s all a bit perfunctory and going-through-the-motions, but disengage your brain and it all makes for passably enjoyable nonsense.
Which is where the Yeti come in, for, entirely unintentionally, they encapsulate exactly what this movie and by extension franchise is all about. The first Sommers Mummy movie was an unapologetic, CGI-drenched reworking of Indy, borrowing for good measure the name and kudos of the old Universal film. That Rick O’Connell didn’t immediately end up in the same bargain bins as Allan Quatermain and whatever Nick Cage’s name was in National Treasure was down to the fact that the film was happily unapologetic for the fact, and got away for its lack of wit or intelligence with a totally unsubtle fling-everything-at-the-screen-and-see-what-sticks ethos. It revelled in the fact it was a glorified B-movie with an A-movie budget, and audiences were quite happy to go along with its cheap and cheerful fun. Where Sommers went wrong with the sequel, and even more so with the ghastly Van Helsing, was that he forgot that it was this happy naivety that made the first film a hit, and got carried away with the excesses while forgetting to include that cheerful wink to the audience. This third film returns to the guilelessness of that first episode, and harks back even more than its predecessor, and ultimately Indy, to the old 30’s serials which form the inspiration for the entire genre. The episodic structure, simplified plotting and schlocky sense all emulate those pulpy origins.
The Yeti epitomise this: in the same way that each week in those serials the seemingly inescapable cliffhanger would be resolved by some previously revealed deus ex machina – a reachable lever to turn off the machine, or a hitherto undisclosed weapon or whatever – so the Yeti turn up here in the monastery sequence. Their presence in the movie is entirely incongruous, they don’t make any sense in the context of the story being told (why would the character who summons them have any connection with the abominable snowmen?) and they are there solely to help our heroes escape and oomph up what would otherwise be an even more run of the mill sequence than it is. And thus they sum up the whole approach made by those making the movie, and your reaction to them will reflect your reaction to the whole. Either you will be extremely irritated by them for being a piece of lazy, nonsensical plotting that makes an already silly movie even more annoying, or you will cheer them for being a piece of lazy, nonsensical plotting that makes an already silly movie even more enjoyable in the same way that all those old serials were. They’re rubbish, and so is this film, but as long as you view it with such a suitably indulgent eye, it reminds one very much of a far more innocent era when such a slapdash approach got away with it. If we were in a different place and talking about a different movie I have no doubt I would be excoriating all involved for not trying harder, but because this has such a nostalgic feel I find myself prepared to forgive it for far more than I really should. And it's all because of the Yeti.
There are three versions of the film released in Region One (not including the Blu Ray release), a single disc widescreen version, one-disc full screen version (no comment) and this two-disc “Deluxe Edition,” with the one disc editions coming only with the feature commentary and deleted scenes. On first putting Disc One in there are eight minutes of previews, an eclectic mix made up of trailers for The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior, Coraline, My Own Worst Enemy, Beethoven’s Big Break a general purpose trailer for the magic of Blu Ray and a trailer for the video game Wanted: Weapons of Fate. The Main Menus open with an assortment of clips from the film, accompanied by the stirring theme, before we end up with what is, after all that, a slightly disappointing static, abstract image of the villain’s colossus, bathed in red, looking over the options Play, Scenes, Bonus Features and Languages. The film itself and all the extras bar the commentary are subtitled.
The presentation of the film is very solid but not exceptionable. The Video isn’t especially vibrant, and some of the scenes set in the catacombs don’t quite have the clarity of definition to give the transfer top marks. However, there are few artifacts and little in the way of problems like edge enhancement, making it more than acceptable. The Audio is equally decent, although the battle scenes don’t quite have the impact one would wish for from a spectacle on that scale, but it’s perfectly clear and well delineated across the five speakers.
As for the Extras with the exception of a couple of minor pieces they are the usual sort of puff you would expect from a mainstream, super commercial release such as this. The Making of the Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (22:48) is an E4-style documentary, high on people chatting to the camera while stunts are being set up, low on anything remotely interesting happening. Everyone seems to have had a fun time shooting the film though, which is lovely. Equally lovely is A Call To Action: The Casting Process (4:45) the sort of sickening extra, in which each actor is revealed to be just the most splendid human being that ever lived, which should have died out years ago but which still rears its sycophantic, non-ironic head all too often. A variation on the same theme is Creating New and Supernatural Worlds (8:35) in which all involved reveal that they think the sets are, like, just awesome. Neat. However, the award for the most vacuous featurette has to go to what could have been in other hands the most interesting, namely Legacy of the Terra Cotta (13:35). From its title one might expect this to look at some of the real historical background to the film, but while there’s plenty of mention made about how fascinating the time of Qin and his army is, and how splendid Chinese culture is, there aren’t actually any facts about the period or the man. This makes for a mildly bizarre piece in which the central topic is alluded to but never actually expounded upon, adding up in the end to nothing more than a lengthy bit of padding.
Fortunately there are a couple of items that are vaguely worth a look. The best is Jet Li: Crafting the Emperor Mummy (8:00) which, despite its title, doesn’t focus on the actor but rather those involved in creating his CGI alter ego. They talk about how they went about crafting his look and some of the issues they dealt with in a featurette that is both interesting and informative. Preparing for Battle with Brendan Fraser and Jet Li (10:41) isn’t bad either, with fight coordinators showing how they put together the various fisticuffs, interspersed with footage showing the end results. The Deleted and Extended Scenes (10:46) are a mixture of action snippets and the odd character moment, such as a very briefly extended version of the mountain-top camp site. While none are particularly thrilling, it wouldn’t have done the film any harm at all to have included nearly all of these and one can only presume they were snipped for time purposes. Finally there’s the Commentary from Cohen, who admits at the start that he’ll probably ramble a fair bit and stays true to his word. Much of the time he’s either describing what’s going on on screen or wandering off the point (he supports Obama) so that the odd snippets about the making of the movie are surrounded by much irrelevance, although he does sound a very nice chap. Finally a Digital Copy is included.
Kitschy, unimaginative, perfunctory, formulaic and good fun because, not in spite, of all that, this third episode of the Mummy is far more enjoyable than the second and only a couple of steps down from the first. It probably wasn't a franchise worth bringing back to life, but on its own it's undemanding entertainment for a lazy night in. Unfortunately the Extras show a similar lack of imagination, and my tolerance for them was far lower than for the main feature.