I'll just come right out and say it: 'The Mummy' franchise is past its prime. 1999's 'The Mummy' was a fun 'Indiana Jones'-lite thrill ride, and 2001's 'The Mummy Returns' was a decent-enough sequel. But the spin-off 'The Scorpion King' (Not to mention its direct-to-video sequel 'The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior') was really milking it, and should have seen this particular turnip bled for all the blood it had. Fat chance -- almost a decade after the first film, Universal has decided to return to the well yet again to milk it for any last drop of box office profit it may have had. So now we have 'The Mummy: The Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,' yet another sequel that is the worst of the 'Mummy' theatrical lot, and a film which really never needed to be made.
The plot sees the return of Rick and Evie O-Connell (Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello, subbing for a wisely-absent Rachel Weisz), who in the first and second 'Mummy' had the misfortune to keep breaking curses that resurrected long-dead mummies. Seems this time, they stumble upon an age-old legend involving a nasty emperor (Jet Li) who enlisted the aid of a sorceress (Michelle Yeoh) to discover the secret of eternal life. Too bad the sorceress secretly doubled-crossed the emperor, damning him to a fate of living death, unless the curse is lifted and he can rise to fight anew with his army of undead soldiers. It's up to Rick and Evie, along with the couple's now-teenaged son (Luke Ford), to thwart the emperor before he lifts the curse and brings death and destruction to the world.
At first, it would seem that there is a good deal new in 'Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.' Gone is original 'Mummy' helmer Stephen Sommers, replaced here by Michael Bay-lite action director Rob Cohen ('The Fast and the Furious,' 'Stealth'). Also missing is Weisz, with Bello almost making us forget the absence of the now-Oscar winner. The filmmakers also seem to be priming Ford as the new heir to Fraser's lead role, which if nothing else brings a sense of youthful vigor to the franchise. Li and Yeoh also sport a healthy does of spunk as our new villains, sans the muscle-y brawn of original two-time mummy monster Arnold Vosloo. And there's a new milieu, too, with China stepping in for the Middle Eastern locations of the original films.
Unfortunately, a look beneath the hood reveals precious little in the script by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar that truly brings any fresh ideas to the 'Mummy' franchise. Almost everything is a stand-in for the elements that worked so well in the first film (and, to a lesser extent, the second). Fraser continues to prove himself the most affable and purely goofy action protagonist in movies today, but he and a game Bello can't really do much with underwritten roles, especially as the Rick and Evie characters do little but volley sitcom-level banter back and forth. The addition of Ford also resolves itself into nothing by film's climax. Even the return of John Hannah, as Evie's sarcastic, money-hungry brother Jonathan, is about as inspired as a third-rate C-3PO. And ditto the new "Asian" milieu, which seems like a calculated (and desperate) attempt to bring a hip, modern flavor to a very American brand of supernatural mummy mythology that really has absolutely nothing to do with Eastern philosophy or mysticism.
So, instead of genuine inspiration, Cohen, plus Gough and Millar, seek to overwhelm us with bombast and a host of creatures and action scenes. This movie is so over-stuffed we not only get the athletic but unimposing Li (improbably cast as a menacing warrior) as the new mummy, but a horde of Terra Cotta soldiers, shape-shifting monsters, a visit to Shangri-La, and even abominable snowmen! Too bad that the effects in this movie are so piss-poor (it truly is mind-boggling how bad CGI has gotten over the years) that nothing here truly thrills -- its just a cheap attempt to throw stuff at us, apparently hoping that we'll be too visually stimulated to notice the weakness of the story. It's all so over done that, ironically, nothing registers.
I would be lying if I said I didn't at least enjoy some of 'Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.' It's all so fast-paced and flooded with action and spectacle that there is a modicum of entertainment value to be found in that crummy, Saturday-afternoon time-waster sort of way. But for a film that cost a reported $150 million-plus to produce, one would expect just a bit more substance for the dollar. 'The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor' suggests that this is a one-joke franchise -- the original 'Mummy' was more than enough, and probably didn't even need one sequel, let alone two (or is it three, or maybe four, depending on which installments you count!). Judging by 'Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,' all involved should just have quit while they were ahead.
Universal offers a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode (2.40:1), and it's excellent. Of all three of the 'Mummy' movies I have reviewed on Blu-ray, I found this one to be the best of the bunch.
'The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor' is one of the finest new releases I've seen out of Universal in a while. The source is pristine, with incredibly rich blacks and strong, supple contrast. The image pops with great depth and noticeable fine detail, with even the wide, expansive shots finely-textured. (Only some of the effect-heavy scenes suffer from softness, though this is indicative of CGI.) Shadow delineation is also generally superb. Colors are nicely saturated and clean, though the film is intentionally stylized to sometimes appear skewered to a drier, paler sheen. Finally, the encode is rock solid, with no noticeable artifacts or other issues. 'The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor' ranks as one very fine Blu-ray transfer.
Every bit the equal of the video is this DTS-HD Lossless Master Audio 5.1 Surround track (48kHz/24-bit).
Enjoying aggressive sound design, 'The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor' crackles with lively surrounds. The soundfield is quite immersive, with excellent panning between channels and robust dynamics. Low bass is powerful, with my subwoofer getting quite a workout. As expected for a major studio film with a huge budget, the mix is incredibly slick and polished, and dialogue is perfectly recorded and balanced. The score by Randy Edelman is somewhat bombastic, but certainly booms and swells across the entire soundscape. 'The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor' is an aural treat.
Universal has not held back when it comes to extras on 'The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.' It has, well, a tomb full of bonus features and high-def exclusives -- two discs full of 'em, in fact. (Note that the first disc is a Blu-ray, the second a standard DVD.) All video materials are presented in full 1080i/VC-1/AVC MPEG-4 to boot.
'The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor' is the weakest of the 'Mummy' movies. It comes too long past the franchise's sell-by date, and adds little new to the formula except for bigger, louder, and dumber action and CGI. This Blu-ray is top-notch, however, with excellent video, audio, and supplements. 'Mummy' fans should check this one out, but all others will probably find it worth a rental at best.