If you want: Mummies! Yetis! Perambulating Skeletons! Brendan Fraser (Back from the Dead)! …this is your movie. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor has a colon in the title, and that colon says “of dubious quality” as sure as if the movie carried a Made in Myanmar stamp. The movie belongs to a long line of gormless CGI twaddle that dates back far beyond the first Mummy, and either you accept its bad dialogue, ludicrous plot twists and comedy yaks or you go and watch something Michael Haneke-y and pretend comedy yaks don’t amuse you. For my part, I’m with any movie where John Hannah screams “Die you mummy bastard!” But maybe that’s just me.
After a brief prologue where Michelle Yeoh tells of a legend that explains who the bad guy is going to be this time around, we catch up with Brendan Fraser fly-fishing. It is After the War (WWII) and Fraser and his trusty wife Maria Bello have retired from mummy-fighting, bequeathing the family business to their son, Luke Ford. Ford – it transpires – is about to get mom and pop back into action, as he’s just discovered a Chinese mummy (played by Jet Li). And before you can say: “Didn’t Jet Li retire to become a monk?” the Chinese mummy has Risen from the Grave (!!) and is hell-bent on breathing life into the third instalment of the Mummy franchise.
I could’ve sworn Jet Li did retire with the intention of becoming a monk. But here he is, smirking inscrutably, as ever. Something about that smirk says we’ll probably never know whether he did retire, or what the hell that monk business was about, but Li has never been one to communicate much on-screen. Ever since he took Mel Gibson’s gun apart in Lethal Weapon 4, he’s been kicking asses and keeping mum. All his lines in The Mummy are in Mandarin, and I’m not going to pretend (like most critics) that I’d know good delivery from bad in a language that’s not my own. Probably he’s as rubbish here as he is in most of his movies, but – my God – he’s still got the moves.
Brendan Fraser seems to have spent his forced retirement fine-tuning his Cary-Grant-if-Cary-Grant-was-Jughead-from-the-Archie-comics schtick, and he’s just as knowing, wink-wink, I’m-in-this-but-I-get-it as he always was. You never believe Brendan Fraser as any character he plays, just as you never believe he was first pick for any role either. Fraser is an actor you root for because he’s likeable (in spite of it all) and because he was born to be the star of a movie that plays like a B-list Indiana Jones.
Maria Bello seems to be stepping into something difficult what with her replacing Rachel Weisz, but playing Evelyn O’Connell isn’t exactly like replacing Princess Leia, and Bello’s such a good sport you’d have to be related to Weisz to oppose the move. Bello – mercifully – hasn’t been grabbed by Hollywood’s forehead police yet, so she’s 40 and Botox-free for The Mummy. Unlike certain actresses (cough, cough… Nicole Kidman), Bello has realised that being able to make facial expressions is a Good Thing, and that lines on a woman’s face are not the same as scar tissue. She was a welcome riposte to the Barbie cult in The Cooler, and she remains unbowed here.
Almost everything in the third Mummy movie has been done before. It’s the kind of movie where you know a stolen truck is going to contain fireworks (a) because the movie is set in China, and b) because it’s all about bright lights and constant explosions). Familiarity isn’t something director Rob Cohen fears – after a career spent making movies no-one especially wanted to see (Dragonheart, The Skulls, XXX, Stealth). Either you’re in a mood where all this makes you tear your hair out, or you’re about ready for Brendan Fraser, for bullets, for True Love to Conquer All (including immortality). No-one says its art, but then, you should know that from the colon.