By the time you get to the third installment in a series about mummies, you might have to start expanding the definition of "mummy." That's what the screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar have done in Rob Cohen's The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. The mummy of the title turns out to be a 2,000-year-old Chinese warlord who, along with his army, had been turned into stone and buried in the desert. It's a loose interpretation of the mummy theme, and allows for the insertion of decidedly non-mummy elements like yetis, wire fu, and three-headed dragons alongside more traditional mummy-movie plot features—desert tombs, magical jewels, international intrigue, and the British leisure class.
That reinterpretation of just exactly what a mummy is doesn't breathe any fresh life into the musty, linen-wrapped legend. But that's not what B-movies are for, is it? Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is essentially the same thing as the old 1930s adventure serials it pays tribute to: It's cheap, thinly plotted, and paced like a runaway train. It's not much more than an excuse for a series of globetrotting, cliffhanging set pieces populated by bigger-than-life heroes, mysterious agents of evil, and ancient terrors bent on world domination.
Except Tomb of the Dragon Emperor just doesn't quite live up to that promise. It's cheap, for sure, despite its reported $175 million budget, and its skimpy but efficient storyline moves at a furious clip from action scene to action scene. But its heroes—the famed mummy hunter Rick "Ricochet" O'Connell (Brendan Fraser), his wife Evelyn (Maria Bello), and their son Alex (Luke Ford)—fall flat, even flatter than B-movie stars are generally allowed. That's partly due to the limp script and a lackluster subplot about family redemption, and partly due to the actors' own stiffness.
The stars are, smartly, hardly given time to deliver their bad lines. The cracking pace of the story places plot above character, and the bare-bones plot is one of the few things Cohen has going for him. The resurrected Emperor Han (Jet Li), loosely based on the 3rd-century BCE emperor Qin Shi Huang, is looking to raise his undead army to take over the world, and the O'Connells are trying to stop him.
Only Michelle Yeoh as Zi Juan, the immortal kung-fu master who guards the fountain of eternal life in Shangri-La, high in the Himalayas, injects any life into her character. It helps that Zi Juan has considerable back story—her doomed love for one of his generals set up the curse on Emperor Han. Li, as is too often the case in his recent American movies, has little to do. In the lengthy prologue, he stands around and gives icy stares. After his initial resurrection, he's a concrete CGI monster that keeps bursting into flames. After he regains his human form, he walks around and delivers more icy stares until the final showdown. Oh, and he turns himself into a couple of monsters.
And the monsters are really what does Tomb of the Dragon Emperor in. This is, you know, a monster movie. It should depend on its monsters. There are a lot of them—a three-headed dragon, yetis, some sort of horned dinosaur ape, and two armies of the undead—and none are done well. It's not just a matter of piss-poor digital effects; the monsters are badly designed. The yetis look more like werewolves than primates, and the dinosaur ape just looks dumb. The dragon works only because its scene takes place at night, so you can't really make out any details. The emperor's army of terra-cotta foot soldiers spread across a widescreen expanse of desert looks impressive from overhead, but in detail the soldiers look too much like garden ornaments to be threatening. Their opposing numbers, an army of those oppressed by Han during his reign, are pale digital knock-offs of Ray Harryhausen's skeleton soldiers in Jason and the Argonauts.
Of course, all of this goes by in a blur—the action never stops once it gets started, and the pace really ratchets up about a third of the way in, during a genuinely white-knuckled chase scene through the streets of Shanghai. That efficiency is nearly enough to salvage Tomb of the Dragon Emperor from its clunkiness. Glossing over the bad acting, ham-fisted dialogue, and crappy CGI with a flurry of pursuits, kung-fu fights, avalanches, monster brawls, and booby-trapped tombs is almost distracting enough for the film's 112-minute running time. It's just when you start to think about it when it's over that you feel like maybe you've been had.