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The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

***
2008

‘…may have been the least successful of the three films, but it’s also the best of the lot…’

Collapsing franchises are nothing new; back in 2008, Rob Cohen’s third instalment of the Mummy franchise managed to kill the series stone dead. Some substitutions in front of and behind the camera didn’t seem to help, with only Brendan Fraser and John Hannah returning from the first two films, and the settings altered to set up a sub-Indiana Jones world of Shanghai nightclubs and ancient Chinese tombs that have no connection to the original Egyptian theme.

The Mummy 3 is certainly slow to start; there’s a good 25 minutes of po-faced waffle about ancient China, and all we get from Rick O’Connell (Fraser) is a bit of fly-fishing. It’s also surprising that Alex and his wife Evelyn (now played by Maria Bello) now have a grown-up son in his twenties, played by Luke Ford. They’re off in search of some artefact in 1946 China, so we can expect to see Michelle Yeoh exploring her own multiverse as a sorceress, and Jet Li as the Dragon Emperor, whose made-up back-story seems to have been inspired by the terracotta warriors of Quin Shi Huang, although historical accuracy doesn’t appear to be a strong-point here.

Although the original The Mummy was no masterpiece, it was an amiable if derivative adventure story that benefitted from our initial fascination with CGI, and from a star-making turn by Rachel Weisz, a serious actress particularly notable as a comedy drunk act. Enthusiasm curdled by the time of The Mummy Returns, one of the first harbingers of the malaise that bad computer effects could cause. So, oddly enough, Tomb of the Dragon Emperor may have been the least successful of the three films, but it’s also the best of the lot, with some fresh visual ideas and some swanky production values to boot; this sometimes looks more like the world of the Uncharted video game than The Mummy.

The MVP is Bello here, giving a different kind of feisty heroine to Weisz, but managing to counterpoint a rather dour performance from Fraser. As he mows down a historical army as it emerges from a sandy portal, he shouts ‘Welcome to the 20th century’ as if he hates nothing more than the past; isn’t O’Connell meant to be interested in archaeology?  Ford revealed that he was signed up for a further three films, but Universal clearly decided that enough was enough and pulled the plug when The Mummy 3 only took in a derisory…checks notes…four hundred million dollars? That huge total suggests that Tomb of the Dragon Emperor isn’t as bad as you’ve heard. I’d previously skipped it, but surfacing as part of the trilogy on Prime, it’s a chunky, old-school adventure with silly set pieces. While the first two films are nigh unwatchable now, the third instalment’s random continuity makes it work as a stand-alone, although by the end, you may feel much the same as the character who shouts ’I’ve had enough of mummies…’

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  1. It certainly killed the franchise for me. Changing characters didn’t work. Having a son practically the same age as Fraser didn’t work for me. The story obviously didn’t work for me because besides terra cotta warriors, I remember nothing clearly and what I do remember I might be mixing up with Hellboy 2. All terra cotta warriors look the same to me (jus’ sayin’).

    But the best of the franchise? I liked them in descending order, as they descended into pure drivel…

    • I liked the first one at the time, but the second one poisoned the well, it’s like recalling a nightmare, and I never want to see another beetle, mummy or anything again. So watch this last night for the first time, as a stand-alone, with no intention of watching the first two, it was fairly painless and I thought Bello wasn’t bad at all. But I guess true Mummy aficionados were unable to handle the changes…

  2. Roger Ebert thought this the best of the three as well, so you have company. Personally I have the fondest memories of the first. Second was dreadful. This one I’ve mostly forgotten.

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