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Friday, November 28, 2008

THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR -- DVD review by porfle

Taking over the directorial reins from Stephen Sommers, Rob Cohen (DRAGONHEART, XXX) continues the saga of Rick and Evy O'Connell and their never-ending battle against mummies in 2008's THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR. If you didn't like the first two, chances are this one won't win you over either. If you did like them, you should have an exceedingly good time.

A lengthy prologue tells the story of Emperor Han (Jet Li), a ruthless conqueror who's bent on ruling the world with an iron fist. He summons the aid of a beautiful witch, Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh), to make him immortal, but when she falls in love with his trusted General Ming, the jealous emperor condemns them both to death. Zi Juan then places a terrible curse on him, turning him and his entire army into terra cotta statues.

Cut to 1946, as a retired Rick and Evy's grown-up son Alex (Luke Ford), now an action archeologist like his parents, uncovers the emperor's tomb. Needless to say, old clayhead gets resurrected and sets off to find the legendary city of Shangri-La, where he'll be able to shed himself of the curse once and for all, reanimate his terra cotta army, and conquer the world.

All our favorite characters are back, though some have changed a bit. Evy looks a lot more like Maria Bello than Rachel Weisz these days, which is cool since I've always been a fan of the lovely Maria. Luke Ford is a reasonable grown-up version of son Alex, who displays character traits from both parents--intelligence from his mom, recklessness from his dad. And speaking of Dad, Brendan Fraser is his usual wonderful self, able to perform comedy and action heroics with equal skill as few other actors can. John Hannah returns as Evy's cowardly brother Jonathan, while newcomers to the Mummy saga, Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, add a whole new dimension to everything, as does Isabella Leong as Lin, Zi Juan's daughter and love interest for Alex. A particularly welcome presence is Anthony Wong (INFERNAL AFFAIRS, EXILED) as the Emperor's toady, General Yang.

Rob Cohen's direction and editing are too busy-looking at times, and I found myself wishing he'd just keep the camera still more often. Another thing that bugged me is the frequent use of less-than-convincing CGI. Of course, that's something I should be used to by now after watching the first two MUMMY films, yet it always seems to take me out of the movie.

Some of it works--an avalanche that threatens to annihilate the O'Connell party in the Himalayas looks pretty awesome, as do some of the climactic battle scenes between the Emperor's army and a horde of ancient undead summoned to engage them. The Yeti are another story, though, along with some of the character animation of Jet Li and the various supernatural creatures that he turns into (one of which bears a startling resemblance to Ghidrah). But if the digital monsters in the first two MUMMY movies or in Sommers' own VAN HELSING didn't bother you, then you shouldn't have any problem with these.

That said, there is a ton of exciting action setpieces in this film. A lengthy chase scene down the crowded streets of Shanghai is a highlight, and a fierce gun battle in the Himalayas is pretty intense. The clash between the terra cotta army and the undead is reminiscent of RETURN OF THE KING's main battle sequence. Along the way we're treated to lots of hard-hitting fistfights and other mayhem, and we even get to see Chinese superstars Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh go at it. The settings for these scenes are fantastic, including some impressive standing sets found in China (such as the old Shanghai streets) and numerous actual locations. Interior sets constructed for the Canadian phase of the shoot are also quite lavish.

Presented in anamorphic widescreen 2.40:1 with Dolby Digital 5.1 and 2.0 sound, the movie looks and sounds great. Disc one of the deluxe edition features some deleted and extended scenes and a scene-specific commentary from director Cohen. Disc two includes featurettes "Preparing for Battle with Brendan Fraser and Jet Li", "The Making of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor", "Jet Li: Crafting the Emperor Mummy", "Creating New and Supernatural Worlds", "Legacy of the Terra Cotta", "A Call to Action: The Casting Process", and "From City to Desert." Subtitles are in English, French, and Spanish, and there's even one of those tracks for the hard-of-seeing with a narrator breathlessly describing what's going on ("Rick ducks behind a column as the Emperor throws a fireball!")

While perhaps not the best in the series (I still prefer the second one), THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR is a welcome continuation of Rick and Evy's seriocomic adventures. Extravagant, action-packed, funny, and loaded with dazzling imagery, it's what the term "dumb fun" is all about.
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