Monday, 11 August 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Back in ’99, when The Matrix was teaching the latest generation of teenagers to distrust authority and admire people who could do somersaults in slow motion while shooting guns at other people who were of no importance, another movie was offering big-screen thrills of a more old-fashioned sort. The Mummy was an action-adventure in the tradition of the Indiana Jones series, fronted by a likeable young chap called Brendan Fraser. It had rolling desert landscapes, dank tombs, untrustworthy foreign people and at least one mummy. It was fun, and it did well, only falling short of the box office takings of its more sensational contemporary by a narrow margin (DVD sales have bucked this trend: statistics suggest that you’re never more than ten feet away from a copy of The Matrix).

Two years passed, and a sequel arrived, bearing all the hallmarks of the cash-in: it was a straightforward retread of its predecessor, but with an extra injection of mediocrity. Naturally, it made even more money. Given this, it’s not immediately clear why it’s taken so long for a third installment of the series to emerge. Maybe key players wanted to move on (it seems Fraser was trying to establish himself as a more substantial actor with films such as The Quiet American and Crash), or maybe the studio was discouraged by the relatively poor showing of its Rock-fronted spin-off, The Scorpion King. Either way, with the financial figures of Harrison Ford’s recent return to his tomb-raiding past still whirling off into the realms of astrophysics, it seems that everyone is amenable to the idea of another rollicking, good-natured battle with the undead.

Of course, after a seven-year interim, viewers are going to expect a shake-up in the formula, and the hearts and minds behind The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor seem to be eager not to disappoint. Accordingly, the setting has switched from Egypt to China, and WWII has come and gone; Rick and Evelyn O’Connell (Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello, who replaces Rachel Weisz) are now retired war heroes living in a country mansion somewhere in England. She is a successful author, having novelised their earlier escapades, and the two of them have a semi-estranged adult son named Alex (Luke Ford), who is determined to become an adventurer in his own right. In addition to this, Hong Kong heavyweights Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh have been added to the mix, providing some eastern exoticism and kickass moves (the legacy of The Matrix in action, no pun intended), and directorial duties have passed from the series’ creator Stephen Sommers to Hollywood regular Rob Cohen.

Given all these factors, one might reasonably expect TotDE to be a fresh take on the franchise’s well-worn blueprint, but it’s obvious right from the start that the changes are laughably superficial. Establishing shots of Rick in the midst of the English countryside make it seem as though he’s been there for all of a month, just long enough for the initial novelty to have worn off. His wife has been able to write and publish two novels, but he’s only just gone fishing for the first time. The most distracting inconsistency of all is that he doesn’t appear to have aged a day since the last film (physically and mentally), even though he now has a son who is at least twenty years old (Ford is twenty-six or twenty-seven). This may seem like knit picking, particularly since the film in question is meant to be a disposable, comic-book adventure, but minor implausibilities rapidly accumulate, giving the distinct impression that the filmmakers really aren’t interested in producing anything more than ‘product’. This impression proves to be enduring, with every supposedly reinvigorating element in the film proving to be nothing but a flimsy novelty, deployed to distract attention from the total lack of ideas at its core. And when I say ‘ideas’, I’m not just talking about fancy stuff like subtext, technical innovation and so forth (no-one would expect that), I mean literally anything that appears to have had an iota of attention invested in it. The action flows rapidly from one-on-one kung-fu combat to Chinatown car chases to epic battles between armies of the undead, but the overall effect is utterly formulaic, and about as riveting as watching a screensaver (with marginally less CGI).

Outside of the action sequences, matters are even worse. The relationships between the assorted characters are poorly drawn, and don’t encompass any satisfying emotional arcs. The O’Connells are completely uninteresting individuals: Alex is smug and bratty, Evelyn is a maddeningly chipper automaton and Rick seems to be only half-interested in the events going on around him. Fraser occasionally manages to imbue his character with a glimmer of charm, but he generally comes across like an off-duty children’s entertainer. Li, employing the method acting for which he is so admired, seems to have ‘become’ CGI (I defy you to identify where the man ends and 3D-rendered object begins); Yeoh is underused; and Alex’s love interest, played by Isabella Leong, is mere eye candy. Perhaps most annoying of all is John Hannah as Evelyn’s brother Jonathan, whose role in the film is limited to uttering a seemingly endless series of bad one-liners and undergoing various 'amusing' humiliations (should his career subsequently suffer a catastrophic failure, TotDE will have done him the service of setting him up as the go-to guy for vomiting-yak sequences).

Mindless, soulless and charmless; this film is an ordeal of relentless tedium, and it will probably prove to be an ignominious end to the series. Like the mummies themselves, it is an ossified cadaver (its spirit long since fled and its brain rotted away in a pot somewhere), dug out of a pit and put on public display. And where its predecessors were able to summon up enough magic to get the corpse dancing about for ninety minutes or so, this time round the best that can be done is to put it in a few lifelike poses and take some tourist snaps.

No comments: