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What a long strange trip to America it’s been for Li Lianjie. The god of high-speed cinematic Wuxia known as Jet Li has made his fortunes in the West in fits and starts; in senseless sci-fi drudge like The One, he’s played to the choir in ethnic opuses like Romeo Must Die, and he’s even indulged in artsy euro-slickness with Kiss of the Dragon and Danny the Dog (A.K.A. Unleashed). After those diversions, Li’s return to his Hong Kong stomping grounds in Fearless brought back his Shaolin Temple cred, but still the US market didn’t truly regard Li as the bankable star he is in so many other parts of the world until he finally crossed paths with another Hong Kong legend who was also firmly on the B-tier of fame in this country. The Forbidden Kingdom gave both Jackie Chan and Jet Li their first number one movie in the U.S. and opened the eyes of Hollywood to the drawing power of these martial arts superstars. This long overdue esteem by Hollywood for Jet Li and his rabid ticket-buying fandom seems to have been the only reason why the latest chapter in the seemingly unkillable Mummy series, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor made its way into theatres as opposed to making a beeline for NetFlix.

However true it may be, that last statement is probably harsher than my actual regard for the picture. Silly, unnecessary and unabashedly ridiculous, Mummy 3 is still absurd, harmless fun. Aside from Jet Li, the film also features two of the greatest stars of modern Hong Kong cinema, the brilliant character actor, Anthony Wong and Michelle Yeoh, goddess of HK action and all-around amazing babe. Director Rob Cohen has exhibited a healthy reverence for Asian cinema going back to his Bruce Lee biopic, Dragon. His casting of Li, Yeoh and Wong are testament to his respect. It is interesting to watch Jet Li who we’re used to playing heroes and good guys, sink his teeth into the avaricious, merciless Emperor. It’s pity that the majority of Li’s scenes in the film are CGI versions of him in various modes of decay as the mummified conqueror. When we do see Li in the opening flashback, he seems to relish the chance to play evil and I would have liked to have seen more. The fabulous Michelle Yeoh plays the beguiling swordfighting sorceress whose beauty brings about the fall of the Emperor’s kingdom. Cohen is wise enough to let us have a duel between the former Twin Warriors costars that shows that neither Li nor Yeoh has lost a step over time. Too bad for all that Cohen may know about Asian action, he never learnt to pull the camera back during a fight scene. Oy. There wasn’t nearly enough of the commanding Anthony Wong as General Yang who intends to resuscitate the Emperor and place him back on his throne, but I should be glad that someone has finally brought one of the greatest actors in Asia to the US in a splashy Hollywood film. True to Wong’s previous roles, he plays the ruthless general while still embracing the inherent silliness and slapstick that is such a major component to this series.

Brendan Frasier exhibits his usual good-natured presence as allegedly retired adventurer, Rick O’Connell, whilst doling out punches and firing a variety of guns. The excellent Rachel Weisz chose to sit out the festivities this go-round and her replacement, Maria Bello addresses the switch jokingly in her opening scenes. While not as sparky and sweet as Weisz, Bello compliments Frasier nicely as the fairer half of the still ga-ga for each other O’Connells. Sadly, I can’t pour praise on the youngest member of their clan. When we last saw young master Alex O’Connell, the precocious, eight-year old was outwitting devious Egyptian mummies and their acolytes. Now almost overgrown, Alex has followed in his parents’ footsteps, invading the resting places of ancient potentates, digging around Asia for his treasures, managing to excavate the one Chinese Emperor able to come back to life and continue the reign of terror he left off two thousand years ago. Remembering that the O’Connells lived in a palatial English manor and the child version of Alex spoke with in clear, crisp British tones, I couldn’t fathom why this Alex spoke with an accent that traveled from the American southwest, to Boston and even to Brooklyn once or twice. Not expecting Streep-level performances, Australian Luke Ford as the lusty, rebellious O’Connell boy, stands out as amateurish and noticeably awful in a film that’s actor-proof. Additionally, the fact that Alex’s dad looks more like an older frat brother than his father was more evidence of slapdashery. I found myself missing Oded Fehr and wished they’d have found an excuse to have him protect the Chinese desert instead of the Egyptian one.  Had Fehr been cast I wonder if he’d have looked as bored as John Hannah, reprising the greedy, bumbling brother-in-law, Jonathan, who clearly needs a new gig. Then there are the Yetis.

The inevitable CGI that permeates every Mummy film is a spotty affair. Our evil Emperor is a crumble-prone shape-shifter who becomes a three-headed dragon (Ghidorah?), then some kind of furry, spiky-headed giant Foo dog. Way up on the silly register is the inclusion of abominable snowmen and when I first saw the creatures that resemble the offspring of Chewbacca and a snow leopard, I groaned. However, watching them in action, leaping about like fluffy ninjas, I’d say they were technically an improvement over, say, the Scorpion King creature from the second film. The big avalanche sequence was pretty neat-looking. However, if it’s the Mummy there must be legions of the undead to back up the bad guy, so instead of the Egyptian guards, we have an homage to Chinese history that introduces Western audiences to the Terracotta Army. Similar to the mummified Egyptian soldiers, the Terracotta Army were statues of the warriors of the first Emperor of China meant to provide him with a standing army he could rule in the next life. The CGI warriors move clumsily and break apart easily as one might reckon from ceramic people. On the opposing side there is an band of zombies raised by the sorceress, who are remarkably collected for having been buried in a wall for two thousand years. The zombies are a downgrade from their Egyptian counterparts in the previous films and look pretty awful.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor wins no awards (- except perhaps a Razzie), but the kiddies should be entertained and there is fun for the grownups in a preposterous 1940’s cliffhanger way. I would have seen it for the casting of Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh and Anthony Wong, but as far the O’Connells’ escapades go; I predict this is the last adventure before the journey straight to DVD.

 

~ Mighty Ganesha

July 30th, 2008

 

 

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(Courtesy of  Universal Pictures)