"Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," the third installment of the sub-Indy "Mummy" series, achieves a new level of subness. Along with the usual lifts from the Jonesian canon — this time, an Ark-like sarcophagus, an arrow-barrage blasting out of booby-trapped walls, a rickety rope bridge swaying over a mountain chasm, even a stage full of dancing showgirls in a Shanghai nightclub — we have an ill-omened romance between a mere man and his immortal sweetie (in the manner of "The Lord of the Rings") and a leaping trio of big, hairy Himalayan Yetis who look as if they're very late for a "Golden Compass" audition.
With Rob Cohen ("The Fast and the Furious") taking over from Stephen Sommers, who directed the first two films, "Mummy 3" is an assembly-line action movie clogged with special effects of a sort that will seem special only to those who've been bricked up in an ancient tomb for the last 10 years. It helps that the blithely likable Brendan Fraser is back as stalwart explorer Rick O'Connell, and that Maria Bello has been recruited to play his equally intrepid wife, Evie, a role previously occupied by Rachel Weisz. (Weisz presumably had better things to do; in a better world, Bello would have, too.)
In the customary prologue, set in China "long ago," the fanatical King Han (Jet Li) is wiping out a succession of provincial warlords to become emperor of all the land. Han also has a pressing interest in immortality ("I have too much to do in one lifetime"), so, after attaining royal supremacy, he dispatches a beautiful sorceress named Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) to find the secret of eternal life. Unwisely, when she returns with a Sanskrit spell suited to that purpose, Han double-crosses her, and she pronounces instead a curse that turns the emperor and his legion of soldiers into life-size pottery statues. (The story is based, rather closely as these things go, on the saga of the historical Emperor Qin Shi Huang, whose own long-buried — and non-magical — terra-cotta army was one of the more startling archeological finds of the last century.)
Flash forward to 1946. Rick and Evie are now retired in their mansion in the Oxford countryside, and bored stiff. When His Majesty's government offers a new assignment — transporting an item called the Eye of Shangri-La (it looks like a Fabergé Easter Egg) back to its native China — they quickly dig out their old adventuring gear and hop on a plane. Meanwhile, their son, the now-grown Alex (Luke Ford), is already in China on an adventure of his own — and he's dug up the crockery-encased Emperor Han. All of this draws the attention of the sinister General Yang (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), who wants to seize the immobilized emperor, use the Eye of Shangri-La to lift the ancient curse off him and employ the revivified monarch as a terrifying weapon in the raging Chinese Civil War.
An awful lot of stuff transpires. There's a kick-ass ninja girl, a rather perfunctory betrayal, a mad horse-and-emperor chase through the teeming streets of Shanghai (where the movie was partly shot), a vast cavern full of those terra-cotta warriors (pretty spectacular, actually) and reams of dialogue both archly anachronistic ("You don't really believe in the concept of personal space, do you?") and simply limp ("I hate mummies — they never play fair!"). Toss in a magical dagger, a three-headed dragon and an Elixir of the Pool of Eternal Life, and you have a movie that should be more fun than it is. There's abundant action — all the usual shoot-outs, punch-ups and acres of exploding real estate — but by the second half of the film, it has congealed into rote frenzy; and it's so choppily edited (and pumped up with blaring horns and overbearing choirs) that our attention drifts away toward niggling details. How likely is it, for example, that a character of Brendan Fraser's age (39) would have a son the age of Luke Ford (who's 26)? And how odd is it that a movie called "The Mummy" should have no actual mummy in it? And why is the picture's most intriguing character — the clairvoyant Colonel Choi (Jessey Meng), a young woman with an exotic scar running the length of her face — left to languish on the sidelines of the plot?
The two previous "Mummy" movies cleaned up worldwide, but the many fans of those films may be disappointed by this one. "Dragon Emperor" cost twice as much as the first two pictures combined, partly because of its extensive Chinese location work (note the attempted synergy with the upcoming Beijing Olympics, to be televised by Universal's broadcast arm, NBC); but the result is a largely flairless clutter of digital hubbub. The "Mummy" producers might profitably take a tip from the old Indiana Jones movies they so often mine. The original Indy series came to a voluntary, graceful conclusion with its third installment. This franchise is already living on borrowed time.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "In Search of a Midnight Kiss," also new in theaters this week.
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