No movie featuring a sword fight between Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li can be classified as a complete waste of time, but you’ve got to slog through a lot of stale clichés to get to those transcendent two minutes. And in a summer when even the latest Indiana Jones movie is a pale copy of its predecessors, who wants to see a second-rate Indy rip-off?
“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” shares almost the exact same plot as the wan “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army”; since both sequels were released by Universal, you’d think one of the higher-ups there would have actually noticed. Once again, a mystical artifact turns up in the modern day, and someone’s got an evil plan to use that item to bring an underground army back to life to conquer the world.
We begin in 1946 with Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn O’Connell (Maria Bello, taking over for Rachel Weisz), bored out of their skulls on an English estate, having retired from adventuring. He’s shooting at fish, and she’s having writers’ block in an attempt to write a third book about mummies, so they’re both thrilled when the government comes calling to ask them to deliver the Eye of Shangri-La, a legendary diamond, to the Chinese government in Shanghai.
Little do the O’Connells know that their now-grown son Alex (Luke Ford) has just made his own significant discovery — the titular tomb, which contains the remains of the evil Emperor Han (Li).
We learn in a flashback that Han, having conquered all of China and having mastered the five elements, sought immortality from a beautiful witch, Zi Yuan (Yeoh). When she spurned the emperor, he had her put to death, but not before she put a curse on him and his entire army. Unfortunately, all three O’Connells wind up being used as pawns by a Chinese general (Anthony Wong) who wants to revive the Emperor and his soldiers.
Plot contrivances are easily forgiven when this kind of movie delivers on the action and the laughs, but there’s very little going on in “Mummy” to keep the film from being your basic Saturday-afternoon HBO time-filler.
Fraser and Ford are believable as father and son only in that they give equally bland and generic performances, and the usually vivacious Bello seems to be choked by her English accent, which gives her trouble throughout. John Hannah’s attempts at comic relief — at one point, he gets vomited upon by an airsick yak — are limp, and the action set-pieces (a car chase through Shanghai on Chinese New Year’s, a siege on a Himalayan temple) fail to stir much interest.
Director Rob Cohen (“The Fast and the Furious”) fills the screen with computer-generated warriors and zombies, but I’d trade them all for one Ray Harryhausen stop-motion skeleton. There’s one out-of-left-field element tossed into the Himalayan sequence that might have worked had the characters in question not looked so ridiculously fake.
Every frame of “Mummy” feels rote, like the filmmakers weren’t enthusiastic about making it, knowing that audiences weren’t particularly counting the days until they could see another film in the series. These movies make enough money in the States to be profitable, and I’m sure they’re dialogue-deficient enough to travel well to other countries, but while the result may be a good investment for its producers, it’s not a good time for ticket-buyers.