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'The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor'--1 1/2 stars
Some movies should've signed a no-compete clause with themselves. The action beats are more like action beat-downs. One Wow cancels out the last Wow, until the Wows start looking more like lowercase wows and soon the wows become merely eh, or worse, a string of low-grade, minimally inventive aggravations that fail even to hit the level of eh. They're more like bleh.
" The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" is bleh, though it's likely to click with the public, given the enormous profitability of the first two in the recent "Mummy" cycle. Certainly Brendan Fraser's granite-jawed, goofily satiric take on a generic serial archetype, the tomb-raiding wiseacre, didn't hurt. Nor did Rachel Weisz simply showing up and being there, pulling laughs out of thin air and reminding everybody else that there's a trick to acting even in a soulless evocation of another era. It's called style.
For this third installment in the series, Weisz took a powder, leaving a role open for the similarly overqualified Maria Bello. There's a new director this time, Rob Cohen, who did "The Fast and the Furious" and "XXX" and the underrated Bruce Lee biopic, "Dragon." "Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," alas, drags him down to its level, though it begins promisingly, with a pleasantly outsize prologue setting up the stuff about the ancient horrible warlord ( Jet Li, encased in cement, or computer-generated fire, or digital decomposing-corpse makeup) turned to stone by a 2,000-year-old curse. Michelle Yeoh plays the good witch who re-enters the story in 1946, aiding Fraser and Bello and their grown adventurer son, played by Luke Ford (meager franchise potential with that one, I'm afraid). Also we get a trio of abominable snowfolk, and the skeletal ghosts of the emperor's long-buried slaves, revived to fight the emperor's stone-no-more army.
Cohen has some fine and varied vistas at his disposal, thanks to the Chinese location work. But be they back-lot and urban or green-screen and rural, the action scenes grind on forever. Neither of the film's two credited editors can make much visual sense out of what's happening. There's a moment when Fraser is playing catch with himself with the special magic "eye of Shangri-La" diamond, which holds the key to something or other, and he's not doing anything a reasonably agile performer couldn't pull off in a single take. Yet the bit's hacked up into four or five teeny little shots that wreck the rhythm. Are you telling me a 21st Century audience can't sit still for 7 seconds without a cut? And by the way: You kids get offa my lawn!
The film has one objective: to smack its audience in the face with fleeting, competing wows, over and over. Characters both digitized and human are constantly getting kicked in the head, or beheaded. The bone-crunching sound effects are cranked up to the glory-day levels of Sensurround. Except it's Sensurround—and KickintheFace—without a breather.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (for adventure action, violence).
Running time: 1:54
Opening: 12:01 a.m. Friday
Starring: Brendan Fraser (Rick O'Connell); Jet Li (Emperor); Maria Bello (Evelyn O'Connell); John Hannah (Jonathan Carnahan); Michelle Yeoh (Zi Yuan)
Directed by: Rob Cohen; written by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar; photographed by Simon Duggan; edited by Joel Negron and Kelly Matsumoto; music by Randy Edelman; production design by Nigel Phelps; produced by Sean Daniel, James Jacks, Stephen Sommers and Bob Ducsay. A Universal Pictures release.