Before there was Mao, there were mummies and a nationalist Chinese army eager to excavate and energize them in order to reclaim their country’s glorious empire. It’s 1946, 13 years in their time since the O’Connell clan outsmarted the Scorpion King and 2,000-plus since a heartbroken witch (Michelle Yeoh) cast a spell on an greedy Emperor (Jet Li) and his soldiers that caused their eyes to overflow with what looked like a chocolate fondue fountain but is presumably liquid terracotta, and a hell of a preservative. Technically, Emperor Han is pottery not putrification—he’s such stuff as Pier 1’s are made of—but that doesn’t stop this franchise from resurrecting Brendan Fraser (in another period role that allows him to keep his Encino Man butt cut) and his Egyptologist hunk from the 1999 and 2001 blockbusters for a third sequel. Former son Freddie Boath and wife Rachel Weisz have respectively aged out and classed out.
Recast son Alex (Luke Ford) is a college dropout and archaeological prodigy. Unbeknownst to parents Rick (Fraser) and Evelyn (Maria Bello strapped with such a bad British accent she must have wished Rick could have been widowed and remarried), Alex’s just excavated Emperor Han and a few dozen of his men from the desert tomb just steps—or steppes, if you’re into bad Mongolian puns—from the Great Wall; unbeknownst to Alex, his folks have been roused out of their palatial ennui to deliver a diamond called the Eye of Shangri-La to Shanghai under the guise of visiting greedy comic relief uncle Jonathan (John Hannah) who now owns a swinging boomtown nightclub called the Imhotep.
Director Rob Cohen subleases the franchise from creator Stephen Sommers who wrote and directed the previous films. Since then, the tech bar’s been raised higher from when a mere walking, talking CGI mummy was lauded as a spectacle. Though Cohen tries to stuff the film with gee-whiz graphic—like, say, timing the O’Connell’s arrival and first chariot versus car chase with Chinese New Year—there’s few jaw droppers and lots of empty glitter as though Fraser and Company have inadvertently revived ABBA. The niftiest wonder is Jet Li—or technically, the pixels allegedly masking Mr. Li—as a pissed off statue. When shattered, his ghoulish face peeks through before once again being smoothed over by molten rock that flows up from his shirt collar. That probably took weeks to execute, and in that time, not one of the filmmakers questioned why he’s unbreakable—his similarly afflicted soldiers shatter like glass bottles on a BB gun-toting kid’s back porch—or why, in a fight between rejuvenated pottery and rejuvenated skeletons, only the bones are able to take a hit.
Writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar’s dialogue in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is culled from 1,000 other action adventure one-liners. When not specifically whining about the family’s predilection for the undead, the gang could just as believably be gasping or gloating over a battle against a giant squid. The plotting isn’t an improvement. After a Himalayan showdown where five Westerners, four Yetis, countless guns and a crate of dynamite fail to prevent Jet Li from reaching a golden tower, my friend whispered, “Why didn’t they just cut the rope bridge?” Immortal warrior Lin (Isabella Leong) and love interest for Alex looks 12 and sounds like Judy Garland; for that matter, he looks older than mom Bello and talks like Rocky Balboa, though he presumably grew up in the genteel English countryside. Still, Lin’s as foolhardy as dear old dad, who Alex tries to Oedipally emasculate in an extended chat about the size and stamina of their revolvers—a gag that’s subtle compared to the one about the airsick bovine. A yak yakking—get it? At least now we know the sound of no hands clapping.