“The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” will almost certainly be regarded in the press as its predecessors have been: A bigger, more fantastic, second-tier rehash of the Indiana Jones movies.
The “Mummy” movies are not exactly that, though. The movies capture the core elements of those old early-20th-century action/fantasy and sci-fi stories less realistically than the Indy films — here everyone’s a crack shot, martial arts expert, demolitions dabbler and swordsman — and so it’s practically screaming at us to regard it essentially as a kid’s movie, which isn’t terribly hard to do. Witness the drunken Irish pilot’s admonition against swearing, for instance. That’s less realistic than having yetis in your movie, and “The Mummy” has them too.
So we can ignore the plot holes safely, I think. In a nutshell, international man of derring-do Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his wife (Maria Bello) are hired to courier a priceless artifact to China, where they are pulled into an (of course) impossible quest to stop the resurrection of the cursed Emperor Han (Jet Li) and the restoration of his army. They fail at that, and so have to stop the emperor before he crosses the Great Wall, because if he does, he’ll become invincible, for reasons that I didn’t really understand.
Fair enough, let’s have fun with it. And they do, they really do. They turn it up to eleven, in fact, with plane crashes, avalanches, three-headed dragons, undead armies clashing, the aforementioned yetis and assorted stuff blowing up real good. Some of the action sequences are actually quite creative — after all, if someone says, “How ’bout a yeti fight?” the only sane answer is “Hell yes.”
The problem is that for all its fantasy, the movie is almost totally bereft of any screen magic. To draw that comparison back out, this is one place where “The Mummy” matches the last Indy film perfectly: It tries so hard to have that twinkle in the eye but utterly fails, leaving us only with a presentation of the kind of story one might watch to theoretically feel that magic.
Take the undead army fight, for one. I (and probably you) saw it done 15 years ago in a cult movie made on less than one-tenth the budget. That movie was even more over-the-top action cheese, and its special effects were horrible. But if I say “This … is my BOOM STICK!” the odds are pretty good that you know what movie I’m talking about now and can quote half a dozen other moments back to me. That’s because “Army of Darkness” is one very memorable movie experience.
That’s why all that over-sized boom doesn’t work for “The Mummy” as well as it clearly wants to: It’s just not enchanting or funny or fun enough, so it’s a single-serving experience. There are thrilling moments … at least, I remember a few moments of being thrilled, but the only one I can recall clearly is the yeti fight, because, c’mon, yeti fight. The rest of the movie? Half dumped out of my brain before my evening bourbon hit the glass.