Given the must, dust and rust emanating from this third installment, it’s clear the time has come for this “Mummy” franchise to be truly mummified once and for all. Set in a post-WWII context and giving the hero a cocky college-age son in a way that tiresomely mirrors the recent “Indiana Jones” revival, new entry has a fresh marketing angle in the Chinese setting that will boost biz, especially in Asia, beyond the built-in worldwide audience that paid more than $800 million to see the first two Brendan Fraser starrers. But as the film comes off as both old hat and low-grade, this will stand as an interesting test of whether seven years rep too long a wait to sustain public interest in a once-popular concept.
Aside from some of the visual effects, which at their best involve 10,000 Terracotta warriors coming to life after 2,000 years, this is cheeseball stuff all the way. As they say, it starts with the script, and this one, by “Shanghai Noon” and “Smallville” scribes Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, should have been found wanting early on, especially in the woeful family-issues dialogue that periodically brings the otherwise lumbering adventure tale to a complete halt.
Last seen battling the Rock’s Scorpion King in Egypt circa 1933, Fraser’s Rick O’Connell, having helped lick the Nazis, is reintroduced here in 1946, getting used to domesticity in a sumptuous English mansion while his wife Evelyn (Maria Bello, stepping into the role vacated by Rachel Weisz) looks for inspiration for another entry in her potboiler “Mummy” novel series. Rick insists he’s retired from archeology and exploring, but perhaps he doth protest too much, as it takes little convincing to get him and Evelyn to decamp for Shanghai, where they quickly encounter Evelyn’s nightclubbing brother (John Hannah, returning) and their devil-may-care son Alex (Luke Ford).
Alex has inherited his parents’ heedless sense of derring-do and good luck, as he has recently stumbled upon the long-sought tomb of the Dragon Emperor and the chambers housing his massive army, all preserved under the Chinese desert. An action-powered prologue reveals how, back in 50 B.C., the ruthless, nation-unifying Emperor (Jet Li) betrayed a witch (Michelle Yeoh) who had agreed to endow him with immortality, and who repaid him by sending him into an unending state of limbo between life and death.
With the help of a duplicitous contempo general (of unspecified political affiliation in 1946 China), who hopes to ride the legendary emperor’s coattails to power, the crusty-looking old monarch heads to Shanghai and then to Shangri-La itself — all the while doing battle, in various human and inhuman forms, with the O’Connell mob, which grows to include the witch, a foxy mystery woman (Isabella Leong), and an old coot pilot to spirit the gang into the Himalayas.
All the elements are present: a rare elixir, a secret stone, the toxic seductions of old Shanghai, a villain who can only be killed in one special way, the brash and sometimes bumbling Americans, the mummy who seethes with centuries of resentment and can morph into other creatures. But reheating the ingredients can’t disguise how stale they are, as setpiece after setpiece strains to whip up excitement, only to fall flat while reminding of previous sequences that did such things ever so much better.
Although he’s pulled off adrenaline-fueled features before, notably “The Fast and the Furious,” director Rob Cohen flubs his opportunities here by shooting most of the action in medium closeups and cutting with manic arbitrariness. Coverage provides scant sense of geography or proximity between characters, while offering no excitement or suspense in the bargain. By any nominal standard for staging screen action, it’s incoherent more often than not.
Rather too relaxed in the early going, Fraser only intermittently finds his old groove, as he’s forced to share the spotlight with an overabundance of co-stars; as the lynchpin of the franchise, he should have exercised a measure of droit de seigneur by demanding a rewrite giving him more action and better lines. The very contempo-seeming Bello is an odd fit here, adopting a high-toned Brit accent and well out of her comfort zone when asked to lurch into battle. Ford, as Alex, is generally annoying, and only further performances by the Aussie newcomer will tell whether the blame lies with the actor or the role.
Asian thesps are highly confined by costumes and character conception, with Yeoh having the most opportunities as the fortune-dealing witch. Li only really appears in recognizably human form at the beginning and end, as the Emperor takes partially mummified CG form through most of the picture.
Production values are massive, ranging from a large Shanghai-streets soundstage set to, more impressively, the sandy wastes that serve as the setting for the climactic battle. End credits are truly endless, listing everything down to hair department interpreter.
If there is to be a fourth “Mummy,” perish the thought, internal indications are that it would be set in Peru.