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'Mummy' awakens after a long nap

MOVIE PROJECTOR

Critics are cool on the latest chapter, but it may win the weekend.

August 01, 2008|Josh Friedman | Times Staff Writer

"The Mummy" franchise hasn't quite mummified, though it has been gathering dust.

Universal Pictures' "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" is the third movie in the effects-driven, action fantasy series and the first in seven years. As 20th Century Fox found out with last weekend's sci-fi flop "The X-Files: I Want to Believe," reinvigorating a franchise after a long gap is no easy task, "Indiana Jones" notwithstanding. "X-Files" opened to a dismal $10 million a decade after the first big-screen spinoff of the popular TV show.

"Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" -- with star Brendan Fraser back as a daredevil explorer who is nothing like Indiana Jones or that "National Treasure" guy, except for the whole daredevil explorer thing -- should pull in around $40 million in opening-weekend ticket sales, based on consumer tracking surveys. Universal says "Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" cost $145 million to produce, although published reports have put the price tag higher.

The family-friendly, PG-13-rated "Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," opening today at 3,759 theaters in the U.S. and Canada, might be the movie that finally bounces Warner Bros.' Batman blockbuster, "The Dark Knight," from No. 1 in its third weekend.

Even so, it probably won't stack up to the first two installments of "The Mummy" series on inflation-adjusted terms. 1999's "The Mummy" opened to $43.4 million (or about $60.5 million at today's ticket prices) and 2001's "The Mummy Returns" launched to $68.1 million (or $85.2 million at today's prices).

Those two pictures went on to gross a combined $849 million at the worldwide box office, which explains why Universal was so keen to make another sequel (as well as the less lucrative 2002 spinoff, "The Scorpion King").

This weekend's other major release, the Kevin Costner political comedy "Swing Vote," from Walt Disney Co.'s Touchstone Pictures, looks headed for about an $8-million launch. Barring a big surprise, it could compete with the Abba musical "Mamma Mia!" for No. 4, but the Will Ferrell-John C. Reilly comedy "Step Brothers" is secure at No. 3.

Word-of-mouth is unlikely to help "Tomb of the Dragon Emperor." Thirty-two out of 36 critics said "The Mummy" series should have stayed under wraps, according to RottenTomatoes.com's tally as of Thursday.

Neither of the earlier "Mummy" movies was mistaken for a masterpiece, of course. And "Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" will benefit from an aggressive marketing push -- including, naturally, a tie-in with Summer Olympics coverage from Universal's sibling, NBC.

In overseas markets, the film could get a boost from the addition of Jet Li as the resurrected Han emperor, along with new settings from the catacombs of ancient China to high into the frigid Himalayas.

"Swing Vote," self-financed by Costner at a production cost of about $21 million, is something of a summer counterprogramming gambit. Disney is also getting out ahead of several other politically themed pictures queued up for this fall.

The PG-13-rated movie showcases Costner in the type of lovable-loser role that served him well in "Bull Durham" and "Field of Dreams." He plays a slacker whose mischievous daughter sets off a chain of events that leads to the presidential election coming down to a single vote -- his.

It's the kind of fable that often gets called Capra-esque. The movie could use a few swing votes from critics, however: 65% of reviews were thumbs-down.

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josh.friedman@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Weekend Forecast

"The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" will probably battle with "The Dark Knight" for No. 1 this weekend at the box office. These figures are The Times' predictions. Studios will issue weekend estimates Sunday and actual results Monday.

*--* Movie (studio) 3-day Through the weekend Weeks predic tion(m illion s)

1 The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon $41.9 $41.9 1 Emperor (Universal)

2 The Dark Knight (Warner Bros.) 40.6 392.1 3

3 Step Brothers (Sony) 16.6 63.4 2

4 Mamma Mia! (Universal) 11.2 86.2 3

5 Swing Vote (Disney) 7.9 7.9 1

6 Journey to the Center of the 6.3 72.6 4 Earth (Warner Bros.)

7 Hancock (Sony) 4.5 215.3 5

8 The X-Files: I Want to 4.4 18.1 2 Believe (20th Century Fox)

9 Wall-E (Disney) 4.2 203.7 5

10 Space Chimps (20th Century 3.1 22.3 3 Fox) *--*

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