DVD Review: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor -- 2-Disc Deluxe Edition (2008)

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When it comes to appreciating The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, "size counts"... or at least that's what he said. And while it's tempting to say that I'm referencing Steve Carrell's frequent tag-line on NBC Universal's sitcom The Office-- in this case it would be incorrect. No, instead I'm referencing Universal Studios' latest entry into the ridiculously profitable Mummy franchise by taking a quote directly out of the mouth of its heroic babe Brendan Fraser a.k.a. the handsome everyman whose ability to mix humor with emotion and tackle scenes that require tremendous physical agility have found him returning to play Rick O'Connell in 2008 for the third time.

While in the film, his phallic joke is in reference to choosing precisely the right gun to employ in order to blow baddies chasing them out of the Shanghai Museum to smithereens, he could just as easily have been talking about Fast and Furious helmer Rob Cohen's directorial effort.

Blending his love and vast knowledge of Chinese culture and study with his penchant for staging epic action sequences, Cohen's thrill ride approach to direction-- or as he notes in a twenty-two minute making-of-featurette, his goal to ultimately entertain-- makes for a breathtaking experience but one that loses a great deal of its impact on the small screen.

Best appreciated in the theater or on the very biggest television you can find as-- say it with me-- in the land of Cohen, "size counts." Moreover, his decision to take The Mummy from its lighthearted fantastical romantic comedy styled romp and turn it into something "edgier and bigger and more like a film of mine," has mixed results as some sequences seem so ridiculously computer generated that we feel like we're watching a video game or computer editing program demonstration.

The film begins with an extraordinarily fascinating prologue starring legendary Chinese stars Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li as the vicious emperor Li murders Yeoh's beloved. Setting up the trouble to follow, in return she sentences them to eternal life entombed in Terra Cotta clay, and the lensing and design of this eye-catching spectacle was no doubt influenced by Cohen's passion for Chinese history as well as the films of the "Fifth Generation" filmmakers from the country such as Zhang Yimou whose work including Hero he cites as an influence at the beginning of Tomb's Newmarket Picture Moviebook.

Then moving two thousand years to post-World War II England, we find our retired adventurers, Rick (Fraser) and his wife Evelyn (Maria Bello replacing Rachel Weisz who backed out due to screenplay problems) living lives of dull wealth and privilege, longing to get back into the world of near-death escapes and thrill-seeking. Of course, as the Hero's Journey dictates, they're called to action literally when asked to bring a dangerous artifact to Shanghai and-- using the opportunity to stop in and visit Evy's brother Jonathan (the scene-stealer John Hannah), the two embark on the international trip.

Sure enough, their feet barely touch the ground before after a brief dance and a few punches, they find themselves up to their necks in mummies, intrigue, danger, and eye-popping special effects when they band alongside their twenty-one year old ambitious archaeologist adventurer son Alex to try and vanquish the newly awakened Dragon Emperor (Jet Li) and his thousands of warrior soldiers.

Unfortunately while the action is ramped up to an all-time high, the screenplay falters to a a screeching halt about midway through as the series trades its usual wit and period humor for corny one-liners and cliched speeches and-- while again, it's easy to get blown away by the film's thrills-- Cohen's runaway train completely jumps off the tracks when abominable snowmen are thrown into the mix. Moving The Mummy into Lord of the Rings or Prince Caspian territory to bizarre effect-- fans of Chinese cinema will be disappointed upon realizing that we don't have a major showdown with Jet Li until the last thirty minutes of the film (since absurdly he must morph into all kinds of CGI creatures throughout as if just being Jet Li wasn't awesome enough!) and Yeoh's impeccable action timing is wasted.

Sort of suffering from the same technological overwhelm that bogged down the newest Indiana Jones and James Bond films-- Hollywood filmmaking has seemed to have reached a crucial point in which the balance of natural stunts and special effects should be reevaluated. More specifically-- just because we can enhance, super-size, and step up everything on the computer, it doesn't necessarily mean we should unless it's in service of the worthwhile tale. And although while you can still appreciate Cohen's tremendous attention to detail given its same bright color palette (although now altered to match its setting) and the incredible cast including a refreshing change of pace for independent film star Maria Bello to leave the tissues and gritty dramas behind to don a gown and fly through the air on wires-- it feels like a bloated film that would've been better if more had been developed in the screenplay stage.

Despite a stunning transfer of the film that looks far more incredible on an upconvert player as on a smaller screen and just on standard DVD you'd be better off grabbing either the original, a Zhang Yimou epic or video game. For once the group meets the abominable snowmen, sadly around the same time John Hannah is appallingly relegated to visiting Shangri-La in what can only be described as a "Cosby sweater." Still, he tries to crack a joke or two including his best-- which still ultimately references Campbell's Hero's Journey directly-- as he calls the now lizard evolved Li a "three headed shape shifting son-of-a-bitch." And Fraser's retort later that their pilot "can outfly a three headed lizard any day of the week," manages to epitomize the level of writing for the rest of the movie.

While ultimately the Terra Cotta army may have been best used as pottery instead of a plot point, Cohen still makes an earnest attempt to entertain with scope and manages to deliver from time to time with jaw-dropping images before once again, they go so far to the extreme that any attempt to bring dazzling artistry to the piece (which he succeeded with in that wonderful beginning) is completely lost by the finale. The film, which is available in various versions including Blu-ray (which I would recommend due to the otherwise "video game" likeness), also boasts a fully loaded bonus disc of features in the 2-Disc Deluxe Edition DVD. In addition to a few extremely brief featurettes, luckily its standout is a roughly ten and a half minute mini-doc with fight choreographer Mike Lambert as he preps everyone for battle to such a wonderful effect that you wish more would've been done with human actions rather than the computer.

Coinciding with its December 16 release, Universal Studios was also kind enough to send me its gorgeous full color, oversized moviebook with countless concept drawings, publicity stills, behind-the-scenes photos, storyboards and comments from all involved including a fascinating introduction from Rob Cohen that goes further into the vast research, Chinese history, and legends used in the film. While the book is incredible and makes one wish that the film was better than it ultimately is in not just celebrating China but offering viewers an experience we could get lost in instead of one that's so wild, fast, and furious that it loses us midway through, for Mummy devotees who've followed the O'Connells and the Scorpion King in its spinoff, you'll no doubt want to explore this Tomb at least once. However, in doing so, you should obviously keep the importance of size in mind. And yes, you Office enthusiasts-- you can go ahead and giggle if you quote from this review with a Michael Scott impersonation of his signature line, "that's what she said."