This is third or fourth or fourth-and-a-half go-round – The Scorpion King fits in after The Mummy and The Mummy Returns, but before Revenge of the Mummy, a short made especially for Universal theme parks with ‘mummy’ rides – with the franchise that began with Stephen Sommers’ 1999 ‘reinvention’ of Universal’s dusty, endearing Boris-in-bandages picture from 1932; you can tell the deep commitment the present filmmakers have to their cinematic history from the quote by producer Sean Daniel in the press notes about going to ‘every Boris Karloff version’ of the mummy (there was only one – Tom Tyler, then Lon Chaney Jr, took over the monster make-up, Chaney three times). Sommers, who went from trashing the mummy to scuppering the rest of Universal’s monster franchises in Van Helsing, has stepped down to producer status, and Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious) takes over as director, which perhaps explains why this Chinese mummy turns for a spell into a Ghidrah-like flying reptile (trivia detail – this is the third Cohen movie with ‘Dragon’ in the title).
Scripted by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (who have done good work on Smallville), Tomb of the Dragon Emperor brings back a clutch of characters (and most of the actors) from the first two mummy films, and keeps having them say things like ‘I hate mummies’ just to remind you we’re in the same business — even though Egypt has been left behind (aside from a tacky Shanghai nightclub called Imhoteps) and we’re in China. A more significant line comes from John Hannah, returning as the agonisingly annoying comedy relief coward, who whines ‘my ass is on fire, my ass is on fire’ as his trousers catch light while he’s on a truck full of fireworks careening though the streets of Shanghai in pursuit of a just-revived terracotta warrior villain. Repetition doesn’t make the line any funnier and the fact that all the dire peril is a cheap joke goes a long way towards explaining why this action-packed, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink special effects spectacle is in the end faintly dull.
The outline owes something to The Mummy Returns as a prologue establishes the otherwise-nameless Dragon Emperor (Jet Li) as a major baddie who built the Great Wall of China on top of his enemies’ corpses and got sorceress Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) to unlock magic secrets which might make him immortal only to double-cross her by having his top general (Russell Wong), her boyfriend, ripped apart by horses. In revenge, Zi Juan turns the DE and his whole army into terracotta – as usual, the curse has complicated rules which mean he’s bound to be resurrected eventually, so her daughter Lin (Isabella Leong) has to spend two thousand years guarding the tomb and toting around the one weapon which can permanently kill him, a magic dagger. Hey, why not stab him with the dagger before turning him to terracotta? Come to that, why is the honourable general so devoted to such a complete bastard, and why does Zi Juan go to the bother of making him immortal rather than turning him into a toad? Also in the set-up is an unresonant mix of James Hilton and H. Rider Haggard as a trip to Shangri-La (in the Himalayas, guarded by three yeti) and a dip in a magic pool confer proper non-earthenware immortality on the villain, plus the ability to transform into any monster shape he can think of (he manages about two), and a gambit whereby the revived terracotta army will become unkillable (ie: unbreakable) if they cross the Great Wall, which is guarded by the skeleton armies of those long-dead anti-DE martyrs commanded by one-armed General Ming (who ought to have no arms and legs if he’d been properly quartered).
This feels more like some sort of role-playing game, whereby contestants have to pick up points that confer extra powers, than an actual plot, but it probably isn’t anyone’s fault that what passes for a story seems cobbled out of other sequels released this summer, as we get the friction between an older adventurer (returning star Brendan Fraser) and his cocky young son (Luke Ford) straight out of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (a last-reel reveal that mummies have been found in Peru either refers to the Lucas-Spielberg film or means that any fourth installment is now going to have to think of another locale) and business with a to-be-resurrected world-conquering magic army out of Hellboy II: The Golden Army. Fraser enjoys himself less here than in Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D and really isn’t suited to playing grouchy Dad in the tiresome scenes about how he was never there for his son but really truly ickily loves him enough to take a sword through the heart (he gets better) for him, while Bello has one joke to explain why she isn’t Rachel Weisz, adopts a reasonable cutglass British accent and gets eased out by the fact the big relationship in the film is formulaic father-son nonsense out of the script-by-numbers book (the subtext for this always seems to be – look, Dad, I’m a big shot in Hollywood, now don’t you wish you’d played catch with me more often so I wouldn’t be in therapy?).
The contemporary villains are a Chinese General (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang ) whose scarred sidekick (Jessey Meng) comes on a bit like Cate Blanchett in Indiana Jones – the script doesn’t definitely say so, but this would-be restorer of the Chinese empire (circa 1947) seems to be more a nationalist than a communist, though I suspect access to all the spectacle of Chinese landscape would have been curtailed if it were specified either way. Like the other Mummy films, it’s too crowded with business (naturally, everyone does kung fu) to bother with anything like magic, romance, suspense, excitement or mystery – it’s a film in which fabled lost cities are found within thirty seconds screen-time of their being mentioned, and vast distances are covered without so much as an animated map or a montage of tramping feet.