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Sequel Leaves Wit in the Dust

August 1, 2008

By Michael Sragow, The Baltimore Sun

Aug. 1–Three yetis, a yak and a couple of yuks. That’s all you get in the way of original entertainment in The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, an extravagant and frenetic third entry in the franchise about adventurer Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his continuing fights with the embalmed yet undead. It’s like an Indiana Jones movie without rhythm, wit or personality, just a desperate, headlong pace. It does have a sense of the ridiculous (one character declares “You guys are like mummy magnets!”), but a wink doesn’t mean much if there aren’t any brains behind it.

Apparently defining “mummy” broadly now as any human receiving elaborate antique burial rites, the series takes O’Connell and his wife, Evelyn (Maria Bello, substituting for Rachel Weisz), from Oxfordshire, England, to Shanghai, China, on Chinese New Year’s Day, 1947. They soon become embroiled in a despicable warlord’s efforts to bring the Dragon Emperor (Jet Li) back to life so he can reawaken his army and unify China with an iron fist, just as he did when he built the Great Wall over the bodies of his enemies.

A beautiful sorceress (Michelle Yeoh) had cursed the emperor for reneging on a promise, freezing him and his legions of fighting men into terra cotta figures. Now, the O’Connells must venture deep into the Himalayas and then to the Great Wall to save China and possibly the world from a new Dark Age.

Also along for the ride are a mysterious female warrior (Isabella Leong), Evelyn’s brother (John Hannah) and the O’Connells’ son Alex (Luke Ford).

And I do mean “along for the ride.” The director, Rob Cohen, and his screenwriters, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, seem to be trying out new attractions for the Universal tour. They pour in promising ingredients from old-fashioned, exotic escapism, including a jewel called the Eye of Shangri-La and an elixir of immortality. But they’re so intent on holding to a relentless pace and filling the screen with special effects that they don’t even try to cast a magic spell. For example, the emperor has absolute power over water, wood, metal, earth and fire, but all they provide is a tableau of him suspending globes of each element between his hands.

Fraser is an actor with amazing audience rapport, comic timing and range (as he showed in Gods and Monsters and The Quiet American), but a movie like this compels him to overdraw on the audience’s good will. With his broad, likable features and his ready smile, he’s already an oversized cartoon of manliness; he shouldn’t be forced to magnify that impression with a cartoonish character.

The action scenes, like the performances, are hit-or-miss; a dash through Shanghai streets becomes so hectic you wonder whether the filmmakers blurred the images because they didn’t have time to get the effects right. (By the way, as The Dark Knight also proves, these days you can get a PG-13 and still mangle bodies as long as you don’t show any blood.) The climactic battle between two spectral armies is impressive, but the one novel stroke is the appearance of three righteous yetis — scary-looking, good-hearted abominable snowmen. And the one surefire low-comic laugh comes from a nauseated yak.

Cohen, who started the Fast and Furious franchise, may have figured this film could revive his fortunes after the commercial disappointment of his far more entertaining Stealth. But if he continues to do indifferent work in pre-sold movies like this one, he may become an abominable showman.

michael.sragow@baltsun.com

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