It’s hard to say which summer movie suffers the most from the presence of the other: Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull or The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor.
Obviously, the latter owes its very existence to the former. When writer/director Stephen Sommers launched The Mummy franchise for Universal in 1999, it bore far more in common with the Indiana Jones cycle than the 1932 Boris Karloff movie it was supposedly a kinda sorta reimagination of.
While George Lucas and Stephen Spielberg looked to old B-movies and serials for inspiration, turning out an A-list B-movie in their Indy franchise, The Mummy was a B-movie version of their A-list B-movie, taken the historical swashbuckling action flick back to its shoddier roots, with star Brendan Fraser’s self-aware charm and an at times nauseating amount of computer animation to separate it as a good-bad movie version of old bad-bad movies.
It was hit enough to inspire a sequel ( 2001’s The Mummy Returns), a spin-off (2002’s The Scorpion King), and, after an aborted attempt at a similar franchise ( 2004’s Van Helsing) a second sequel, this one right on the heels of the long-awaited fourth Indiana Jones.
While Kingdom of the Crystal Skull has its critics and defenders, after so many years of Fraser, Nicolas Cage and even Angelina Jolie handling all the tomb-raiding for old man Harrison Ford, I found the pervading sense of Is-this-all-there-is-ism of Kingdom to be fairly irresistible. “Hell,” I thought, “Fraser could have done that.”
And indeed he does it; right here.
If Mummy hurts Indy, it does so retroactively, by reminding us that we’ve all moved on to other things.
Unfortunately for Mummy, it came on the heels of Kingdom, and bears an uncanny resemblance to it.
As in Kingdom, our lead must deal with a headstrong son with his eyes on his mantle (Luke Ford, playing Fraser’s grown-up son), and the bulk of the film involves the whole family, including Maria Bello taking over the role of Mrs. O’Connell from the moved-on Rachel Weisz, adventuring together. There are even some unexpected plot “twists” that play out exactly as they did in Kingdom.
In The Mummy’s favor, it has lower stakes and expectations, and while it’s plot and script might not be all that great, they at least succeed at meeting those expectations.
Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, XXX) takes over the director’s chair, and he provides the same sorts of old-school thrills with a sense of humor that you would expect, from either a Mummy or an Indy, and in the wake of CGI prairie dogs, monkeys and space aliens of Kingdom, this franchise’s copious amounts of special effects seem less garish than they did the last few times around.
A rather long opening sequence introduces us to new “mummy” Emperor Han (Jet Li), who tried to rule the world and become immortal back in the days of ancient China. He was thwarted by a sorceress played by Michell Yeoh, who cursed him and his army, coating them all in terra cotta and sealing them in a tomb, to sleep for all eternity…or at least until the rest of the characters are introduced.
In 1947, the O’Connells are frustrated adventurers trying to adjust to retired, mummy-less domestic life, and generally failing. They’re called back into action when their son finds that which provides the subtitle of the film, and some evil Chinese military types awaken the Dragon Emperor to re-conquer China.
Together with allies like Yeoh’s immortal magic lady, Isabella Leong’s ninja guardian, John Hannah’s recurring comedy relief character, Liam Cunningham’s drunken Irish pilot and some Yeti, they must save the day, along the way stopping at a Shanghai nightclub, the Himalayas, the lost city of Shangri La and the deserts of China.
It will likely surprise no one to hear that Cohen hasn’t gotten any more like Spielberg in the last few years, and for all the rather imaginative set-pieces and action scenes, few are staged very well. Too enamored with close-ups and fast cuts, Cohen’s camera suggests more action than it ever actually captures, which is really too bad when you have martial arts legends like Li and Yeoh sharing scenes and trading blows.
But despite its failings, this latest Mummy still seems to succeed, if only by virtue of not having to try too hard to be as good or better as its predecessors, and seeming to still have enough vitality to hold its own against this summer’s other movie about an adventuring family of explorers. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a fourth film, as Universal hasn’t quite nuked the fridge just yet.