by Guest Contributor Arturo R. García
Though relatively “inoffensive” in dealing with a new locale The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor doesn’t raise the historical bar any higher than its’ predecessors – in fact, it makes Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights look like History Channel specials.
The set-up takes place “long ago” in China, when an unnamed Emperor (Jet Li, who apparently doesn’t count sci-fi in his “no more historical pieces” promise) is killed and cursed after discovering an affair between his top general (the criminally underused Russell Wong) and sorceress Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh). The Emperor and his army are subsequently transformed into the world’s biggest collection of terra cotta statues, frozen in his palace until they’re dug up in “present-day” 1946 by Alex O’Connell (Luke Ford) and re-animated thanks to an EEEEvil west Chinese paramilitary general (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang). You know he’s evil because he can stage an operation to raise a guy who’s been dead for two millenia without the knowledge of any government.
And, he has a goatee.
After that, the Asian presence in the story becomes pretty much window dressing to two sets of plot involving Alex and his do-gooder parents Rick and Evelyn (Brendan Fraser/Maria Bello): they’re off to stop the Emperor, of course, but they’ve also got to adjust to Alex’s growing up and Rick and Evelyn growing older. Along the way, stuff gets blown up, the dead walk the earth – you know, the usual – and Alex falls in and falls for Zi Juan’s conveniently mysterious daughter, Lin (Isabella Leong).
The feeling of window dressing filters down, unfortunately, to the Asian cast, especially Li’s character. He seems to have been inspired by actual Emperor Qin Shi Huang and comic book character The Mandarin, but get this – he doesn’t get a name. He’s listed on IMDB.com as “Emperor Han,” but literally, no one says his name during the nearly two-hour film. Even worse, he has to sell an ass-kicking by Brendan Fraser. The Emperor’s costumed appropriately enough, and Li knows his way around a grimace and a barked threat, but at no point whatsoever does he feel like a threat, or even a full character, even when he uses what’s supposed to be some pretty high-level superpowers. Good thing Owen Wilson wasn’t in this one; otherwise the climactic fight scene might have started, “Hey, DUDE!”
The O’Connells new allies, Lin and Zi Juan, aren’t developed any better. Zi is left to play the O’Connells’ Mystic Guide and provide a bit of exposition and plot-saves, while Lin, despite being an “older woman,” falls for Alex seemingly out of nowhere. Yang, Li’s new ally and seemingly a “modern” military man, is an even bigger blank slate. How does a presumably career military man not only buy the myth of the Emperor, but convince an entire military division to go along with him?
Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who wrote both Shanghai films but are perhaps best known for redefining/ruining the Superman mythos on Smallville, know how to navigate the film’s central conceit. The Mummy series has always positioned itself as an homage to old-timey pulp serials. But, though it’s refreshingly not “cool,”the series continues to force not just suspension of disbelief, but outright termination before your brain implodes.