Movie mummies are supposed to be scary, and Arnold Vosloo's character in the first two films was truly terrifying. Though Jet Li, as the ruthless ancient Chinese Dragon Emperor, slips in a few deadly kung fu moves at the beginning, his fearsomeness wears off soon after; throughout the rest of the film, the scariest thing director Rob Lohan (The Fast and the Furious) can conjure is the Emperor's skin continuously peeling off in clay-like layers, revealing what appears to be a glowingly molten body underneath. Beyond that, and his alternating incarnations as an unconvincing CGI dragon and monster, the Emperor fails to frighten. Steeped in lust and greed for power, ultimately he wants what all mummies want-immortality.
Brawny Brendan Fraser turns in another cheesy performance as the charming (and usually funny, except in this film) archeologist, Rick O'Connell. O'Connell's brash son Alex (Aussie Luke Ford)-tricked into unearthing the Emperor from his eternal encasement in stone-beats his dad to the burial site, and unwittingly unleashes a new reign of terror. O'Connel's wife, Evelyn, previously played by an attractively bookish Rachel Weisz, is replaced in this installment by Maria Bello (The Jane Austin Book Club), whose fake English accent seems as stiff as her performance. Weisz apparently rejected the role due to the film's inferior script, a decision one can easily comprehend. Jocelyn's bumbling brother (John Hannah) returns as the owner of a Shanghai nightclub, the most endearing character in the film. The Asian actors are mostly typecast, delivering a few mild kung fu maneuvers throughout.
The promising prologue, convincingly set 2000 years ago in what appears to be the Gobi Desert, soon shifts to 1946, on an enormous English estate to which the O'Connell Sr.'s have retired. Easily talked into "just one more mission," the couple arrives in Shanghai. At this juncture, choppy editing of non-stop action scenes takes over, producing mostly incoherent mayhem. Even though we know the heroes will prevail, it's nearly impossible to see what's happening in the interim, and after awhile we don't really care. Although the period sets feel realistic, and all the elements of adventure are present-a rare elixir, a secret stone, a plane landing on the edge of a snowy abyss, even a glimpse of the storied Shangri La-the movie overall remains embalmed in monotony. From the jostling streets of Shanghai to the snowy peaks of Shangri La, though, there's not much in the Tomb of the Dragon Emperor worth digging up. Nevertheless, plan on a few more reincarnations of this franchise; the young (and slightly geeky) Alex O'Connel heads next to mummy-ridden Peru. For better or worse, it appears that the series is immortal.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor★✩✩✩
Starring: Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello and Luke Ford. Directed by Rob Lohan. Rated PG-13.