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Don't fall for it

'Mummy' offers effects and spectacle more than a sense of fun.

August 01, 2008|Kenneth Turan | Times Film Critic

"THE MUMMY: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" has the longest title of the trio of modern "Mummy" movies as well as the most elaborate set pieces and most extensive special effects. Bigger, however, does not necessarily mean better, and though the new film has some good things, it does not have enough of them to make the third time the charm.

Despite some 1,000 visual-effects shots and more skeletons than a ride at Disneyland, this latest "Mummy" adventure, set in China instead of Egypt, is not nearly as much fun as 1999's "The Mummy" or 2001's "The Mummy Returns."

It's not as if those films were small and delicate flowers better suited to a slot at Sundance. They were also envisioned as high-grossing popcorn movies, but as written and directed by Stephen Sommers (who returns as a producer here), they had a genuine sense of off-handed fun that the new version strives for but can't recapture.

Instead, as directed by "The Fast and the Furious' " Rob Cohen and written by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, this new "Mummy" can't shake its pro forma feeling. The Gough and Miller plot is certainly serviceable, but the film's feeble attempts at banter are on a par with the writers' best-forgotten work on "Shanghai Noon" and "Shanghai Knights."

It's not just the script that's a sticking point here; there are problems with some of the acting as well. Brendan Fraser, returning for his third go-round as intrepid archaeologist Rick O'Connell, is noticeably uninvolved with the role this time. Maria Bello, stepping in for Rachel Weisz as the plucky Evelyn, loses some of her naturalness to her British accent. And Australian Luke Ford, as the couple's grown-up son Alex, is nothing to write home about.

Given all this, it's fortunate that the film's trio of Chinese stars, not burdened with fake-jokey dialogue, come off well. Jet Li is appropriately fierce as the emperor of the title, Mr. Ruthless when it comes to ruling China, and Isabella Leong does her best as Alex's mysterious love interest. Best of all is Michelle Yeoh, who radiates integrity in every role she takes on and who holds our attention as a powerful sorceress.

In some ways "The Mummy's" prologue, set in 50 BC and featuring only Chinese actors, is the best part of the film. Moving briskly, it introduces the dread emperor, modeled loosely on the real-life Qin Shi Huang, who left behind a huge army of terra cotta soldiers, and details the start of his rivalry with Yeoh's sorceress.

Then, sadly, the film moves forward to 1946, with Rick and the missus "retired from the espionage game" and bored silly as a result. Unbeknown to them, son Alex is in China, rashly digging up the tomb of that evil emperor, who is a good bet to enslave all mankind if he manages to come back to life. Naturally, Alex's parents end up getting involved, and all hell threatens to break loose.

Considerable time and money have no doubt been invested in the film's numerous action set pieces -- some fierce Yetis (don't ask) are especially effective -- and the best thing about "The Mummy" is the sense of spectacle and epic scale director Cohen, cinematographer Simon Duggan and production designer Nigel Phelps bring to the proceedings. If it weren't for all that inept banter, this might have been a different film indeed. As it is, when Evelyn O'Connell insists that "there's something terribly romantic about raising the dead," she's speaking, regrettably, only for herself.

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kenneth.turan@latimes.com

"The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor." MPAA rating: PG-13 for adventure action and violence. Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes. In general release.

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