Profitable summer blockbusters are a bit like avalanches. Once one film becomes a success it can set off sequels and spin-offs.
The avalanche is an especially good metaphor for "The Mummy" series since the word "disaster" is an accurate characterization of both phenomena. The first film directed by Stephen Sommers was released in 1999 and made $433 million worldwide. Its follow-up, "The Mummy Returns," came in 2001 and generated $415 million. The next year saw a new branch in the series with "The Scorpion King," which launched the film career of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and took in $165 million.
So it was just a matter of time before a fourth film would come crashing down on top of us. At least this one is better than its two direct predecessors. (I can't vouch for the spin-off, I managed to avoid smelling what the Rock was cooking.)
The film begins with a prologue set in Ancient China. Han (Jet Li,) a ruthless warlord, conquers the country and enslaves his enemies. His only remaining adversary to overcome is death. So he seeks out the witch Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) to aid him in his quest. Knowing he will use his immortality to oppress his people the witch instead casts a spell that will transform him and his army into stone.
It's now 1946 and Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn O'Connor (Maria Bello in for Rachel Weisz) are comfortably retired. He's taken up fly fishing, she's written two novels based on their adventures in the first two films, and they're bored with life in their mansion. When they're offered an opportunity to travel to China to act as couriers of a giant diamond they're initially reluctant but long for excitement.
In China they meet up with Evelyn's brother Jonathan (John Hannah,) the supremely irritating comic relief character from the first two films. He's now running an Egyptian-themed night club in Shanghai. They also encounter their son Alex (Luke Ford) who has dropped out of college and taken up the family trade of archaeology. He's discovered Han's tomb and mummified remains only to have a group of generic movie bad guys bring the evil emperor back to life. It's now up to the whole family to defeat this new mummy.
All of the troubles of the first two films return. The principle problem of the series can be summed up in a notorious statement that I once made in a college screenwriting class while critiquing a peer's script: "I hate all the characters." (I ended up apologizing to the guy after class and we became friends afterwards.) Every single character in the film is boring, cliché, or, at worst, painfully annoying. These corny one liners drop out of the characters mouths and hit me like bird droppings, each one inducing cringes and squirms. Hannah's character is by far the most guilty offender but Fraser is also frustrating.
Movies in this genre - the archaeological action adventure blockbuster - either succeed or fail based off of three things: how much you like the characters, how exciting the action is, and the strength of the premise. "The Mummy" series is comparable to the "Indiana Jones" and "National Treasure" films - both series that are much stronger in those three departments. Harrison Ford's Indiana Jones and Nicholas Cage's Ben Gates are heroes to root for, unlike Fraser's Rick O'Connell who inspires nothing but loathing.
So if "Dragon Emperor" fails profoundly in the first category, how does it stack up in the other two? Action-wise the film is pretty forgettable. There are some martial arts sequences, gun battles, a car chase, a plane landing in the Himalayas sequence, a booby-trapped tomb sequence, and a climax of undead CGI armies fighting. Like its predecessors, nothing that ever happens is all that unique or exhilarating. The director, Rob Cohen, has never been one of my favorite action filmmakers. His resume includes "Stealth," "XXX," "The Fast and the Furious," "The Skulls," and "Dragonheart" - not the most atrocious pictures but nothing to go out of your way to see. With "Dragon Emperor" he delivers work that's at about the same level as those films.
Where the film does manage a minor success is in its premise. The film's Chinese setting and concepts are its strength. The idea of doing a film with ancient Chinese themes, monsters and mysticism is refreshing and has a lot of potential. The film actually takes advantage of this when some appropriate visitors show up to help the heroes in the snowy mountain scenes. This was without doubt the movie's highlight.
If they chopped off "The Mummy" and just made "Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" then we might have a decent film. Keep Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, and the basic premise but flesh it out a bit more. Next replace all the other characters and actors, the mediocre action director, and especially anything even remotely resembling Sommers's cheesy style. Then you might have a film that would be worth watching.