I found both 1999's "Mummy" and 2001's "Mummy Returns" to be enjoyably mindless fun, but I had my doubts when it was announced that the series was going to be coming back for a third film. Actress Rachel Weisz didn't want anything to do with the film, and writer/director Stephen Sommers decided to head off for another project. As it turns out, those two had the right idea: "Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" is simply a mistake on so many levels it's difficult to know where to begin.
This time around, Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn O'Connell (Maria Bello, replacing Weisz) have retired from seeking adventure, relaxing around their country house. Still, she's writing books about their past adventures and seems as if she's still ready for more. When they're asked by the government to bring an artifact into China, they cross paths with son Alex (Luke Ford) has dug up the long lost Emperor Han (Jet Li). Little does Alex know, those who helped finance the dig want to help the evil emperor awaken.
From there, it's a chase throughout the country, as Rick, Evie, Alex, Uncle Jonathan (John Hannah) and guardian Lin (Isabella Leong) try to accomplish Lin's plan to stop the emperor. However, not surprisingly, they fail on the streets and they fail on the mountain, despite the help of some friendly giant snow creatures (and was it just me, or did a couple of the creatures cheer when they batted a bad guy up into the mountainside?) The emperor seeks out a pool guarded by Lin's mother, Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh), which grants him immortality - after that visit, he can raise the rest of his army.
The idea to move the series to China from Egypt certainly had potential to freshen the franchise up a little, but the film doesn't even begin to take advantage of the new surroundings. Where to begin? I think Maria Bello is a terrific actress, but she's too cartoonish as the replacement for Weisz and has trouble holding a British accent. Weisz and Frasier had good chemistry with one another, but Frasier and Bello feel like they're in different movies. At the very least, the movie could have simply left the character out and said Evie didn't want to go on adventures anymore (which, given the departure of Weisz, would have actually been kinda true.)
Ford is another big mistake, in more ways than one: why does the actor playing Frasier's son look like he's old enough to play Frasier's slightly younger brother? While the performance is mediocre, why make the character an obnoxious brat? In terms of supporting performances, why have Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh - two actors incredibly talented in the martial arts and also, simply very good actors - in the movie and have them do so little? Yeoh, despite having only a few minutes of screentime, gives a finer performance than anyone else in the film.
As for Brendan Frasier, he offered fine performances and at least appeared to be having a good time in the first two, but he looks disinterested (to the point of appearing almost a little upset) this time around. The only one who seems to be having any fun is John Hannah, who essentially replays his performance from the second film.
Director Rob Cohen has gone downhill since "The Fast and the Furious", and this time around, he makes one wish that Sommers had stayed around: the film's few action sequences (such as the major battle at the end) are largely a mess. However, they aren't helped by some of the weakest CGI I've seen in a big-budget movie in quite a while. Given the film's budget, it's surprising that the film's sets often seem at least mildly dreary and uninspired - as lackluster as the effects are (I like ILM's effects work on the second film more than what I saw here, and that film was made several years ago), many other technical aspects look substandard for a movie of this size (and while this is a sizable production, it's astonishing that it lacks the epic feel that a film like this requires.)
Screenwriters Alfred Gough & Miles Millar ("Smallville") also disappoint, as while Millar and Gough have been involved in some stinkers in the past, I'd hoped that their work on "Smallville" would have indicated that maybe, just maybe they'd have something new to bring to the table. Unfortunately, not only does that not happen, but they clearly take more than a little from the "Indiana Jones" films.
Someone should bring back the classic TV series "Mystery Science Theater 3000', if only for this movie: Mike, Crow and Tom Servo would have a field day with this. To top it all off, there is a final scene that indicates a sequel (please, no.) will happen (for those who didn't get the hint, the movie literally indicates a sequel in an on-screen text) and it is one of the more laughable, ridiculous endings I can remember in recent history.
Despite low expectations, I still found "Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" extremely disappointing: while the first two films had their issues, this film not only is missing the sense of fun of the first two, but suffers from a terrible script and some unfortunate changes both in front of and behind the camera.
VIDEO: "Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" is presented by Universal in 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen on DVD. The presentation was a bit underwhelming, especially for a major new release. Sharpness and detail were inconsistent, with some scenes appearing crisp and detailed and others looking somewhat soft.
While the softness in some scenes was dismaying, more of an irritation were some moments where edge enhancement was clearly visible. Some minor instances of pixelation were also spotted, but - on a positive note - the print remained pristine. Colors looked somewhat flatter than expected, but I suppose this may have been the film's intentional look.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack fared better than the video quality, as the most intense sequences (such as the ones in the Himalayas and the final battle sequence) really put the surrounds to terrific use to deliver all manner of discrete effects. Still, while the sound mix did a superb job putting the viewer into the middle of the scene during the few action sequences, the audio otherwise did have a tendency to fold up towards the front during some stretches - some additional subtle detail and ambiance would have been appreciated during the less intense moments. Audio quality was very good, with crisp dialogue, solid bass and clear effects.
EXTRAS: Director Rob Cohen offers an audio commentary for the movie. While I've disliked some of Cohen's movies (like, for example, this one), he's always provided detailed analysis of his films on his commentary tracks, and this one is no different. The director provides a great deal of notes on issues such as casting, details on the history behind the story, development issues, CG and other visual details and more. I didn't agree with some of what Cohen had to say, but he does manage to fill the time well. Also included on the first disc are about 10 minutes worth of deleted scenes.
The second disc opens with a 22-minute "making of" documentary that rushes from one aspect to another, starting with the hectic schedule and then heading from stuntwork to casting to filming action sequences and more. While the documentary doesn't feel overly promotional, it tries to fit a little much into 22 minutes. However, "From City to Desert", does feel more like a promotional featurette: it looks at the varied sets and locations that the movie visited during the production of the film. "Legacy of the Terra Cota" is a look at how history was incorporated into the film. "Preparing for Battle" is a short look at the different fighting styles incorporated, as well as the training required. "Call to Action" takes a look at some of the casting choices, while "Crafting the Emperor Mummy" looks at the effects required to create the CGI character. Finally, "Creating New and Supernatural Worlds" looks at the production design of the film. A digital copy of the film is also offered on the second disc for download.
Final Thoughts: The third time is not the charm: "Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" is a disappointment on nearly every level - and it's too bad, as while the franchise wasn't exactly flawless to begin with, it was at least above-average fun as Summer movies go. The DVD offers adequate video quality, very good audio quality and an assortment of decent extras.
The Film D+