I was 13 when Stephen Sommers' 1999 remake-in-name-only of The Mummy came out — just about the ideal age. Sommers is definitely some kind of junk-addled auteur, and if The Mummy didn't achieve its obvious goal of topping Raiders Of The Lost Ark, it was close enough as far as I was concerned: endless chases, mostly funny quips, breathless pacing. One sequel and dismal spin-off later, Sommers is out of the picture — having gone too far in some direction or other while trying to cram every single monster ever thought up into Van Helsing — and now Rob Cohen is on the case. As it happens, The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor is his second tangle with dragons and, if nothing else, I'm happy to report that CGI dragon technology has improved greatly since Dragonheart.
A prologue trashes Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang — here, as played by Jet Li, called "Emperor Han" for no apparent reason. (Sorry, was there another emperor who unified China and started work on the Great Wall?) "Han," having conquered everything else, wants to conquer death, and seeks out witch Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) to help him do so. Instead, Zi curses Han and his entire army, whereupon they all promptly start melting into a suspiciously chocolate-like substance. Cut to the present: 1946 this time, some 13 years after the last installment (oddly, the characters are now older than their actors). Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn O'Connell (Maria Bello, subbing for a now-too-respectable Rachel Weisz) are suffocating in Oxfordshire, where the adventureless Masterpiece Theater lifestyle is killing Evelyn's novels, Rick's ability to stay awake, and their sex life. Meanwhile, son Alex (Luke Ford) has quit university and run off to China, where he discovers the, uh, tomb of the dragon emperor. When Rick and Evelyn show up in China on a mission for the OSS, they find their estranged son and then save the world.
Best not to inquire too deeply into this Mummy: Where Sommers chose cheerful extravagance, Cohen's enterprise is joylessly efficient, pushing the family around from one locale to the next — inevitably too late to stop whatever it is they were there for in the first place — until the final confrontation. It's weird (and unflattering) to see this thoroughly unnecessary sequel/Indiana Jones rip-off the same summer as Spielberg's own Indiana Jones extension. (And it's downright insulting that the film dramatizes its own lack of inspiration through wisecracks about how Evelyn owes her publisher one more installment.)
Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull (is that really a worse title?) got a freakishly hostile reception, but even Spielberg's half-assed effort trumps this. His chases are crisp and funny, while Cohen's are incoherent and dull. Indy's family dynamics are refreshingly tossed-off; Dragon Emperor spells out its familial trauma/reconciliation with lines like "Thanks for believing in me." The would-be banter is distressingly rote: John Hannah returns for another round as Evelyn's brother Jonathan (doesn't he at least he recognize that someone's stolen Weisz' identity?) and gets rewarded with lines like "My ass is on fire! Spank my ass!"
Then there's Li — pointlessly cast, unless you're coming from a marketing perspective, in which case the film should now appeal to easily pleased fans of mummies and martial arts. Li spends most of his time transforming into various beasties (one of the dragon emperor's powers), and when he finally does get to fight Fraser ... well, I don't care how old Li is, there's no way he's going to get beat in hand-to-hand combat by Dudley Do-Right. At least Li gets to bark his dialogue in Chinese; in apparent deference to American sensibilities, Yeoh, who's given even less fighting time, is forced to sputter out her awful lines in English. (Having been cooped up in a cave for 2,000 years, I guess Yeoh spent immortality learning a second language.)
Strange how dreary it all is, and how tired Fraser seems. In a summer where even conservative blockbusters like Iron Man managed a few personal touches, Dragon Emperor is far less than spectacular and never more than noisy. Any and all props must be assigned solely to the various CGI teams: Though hardly convincing, their three-headed dragon and army of helpful Yeti warriors (!) are easily the highlights of a Mummy low point.