This third entry in the popular MUMMY series -- not counting the 2002 spin-off THE SCORPION KING -- isn't as good the 1999 original or even the lesser MUMMY RETURNS (2001): The formula is wearing thin, the humor has grown a little too corny and those yeti make SHRIEK OF THE MUTILATED look state of the art. But it's passable popcorn fare, even if you'll barely taste it before swallowing.
England, 1946. Thirteen years have passed since Rick "Ricochet" O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) and his wife, Evelyn (Maria Bello, filling in for an AWOL Rachel Weisz), last sent Egyptian mummy Imhotep back to the afterlife, and they're now enjoying a life of quiet retirement on their sprawling Oxfordshire estate. Perhaps a little too quiet: A bored Rick has taken up fly-fishing to pass the time while Evelyn, who found a new career writing pulpy, supernatural adventure novels ("The Mummy" is one, "The Mummy Returns" another), stares at a blank page of typewriter paper, feeling bereft of adventure and inspiration. This spell of conjugal boredom is broken when the O'Connells receive a visit from a Foreign Office minster who begs them to perform one final duty for the Crown. As a gesture of good will towards China, currently in the throes of tremendous internal upheaval, the British government would like to return the fabled Eye of Shangri-la, a gold encrusted jewel said to point the way toward the spring of eternal life. Rick and Evelyn agree to shepherd the stone to Shanghai, unaware that their now-grown son, Alex (Luke Ford), whom they think is away at university, is actually in China searching for the tomb of the Emperor Han (played in the lengthy prologue by Jet Li), a merciless tyrant who united the country's warring kingdoms under his iron-fisted rule. After conquering his rivals, enslaving their people and literally working them to death building the Great Wall, Han set his sites on the one thing no man had ever achieved: immortality. Han charged his trusty aide, General Ming (Russell Wong), with seeking out the witch Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) whom Han believed knew the secret of eternal life. But when the jealous emperor had Ming executed for consorting with the sorceress he planned to make his empress, Zi Juan cursed Han and his army, turning them all into terracotta figures. Not long after uncovering Han's sarcophagus, Alex realizes he's been used by the ambitious General Yang (Anthony Wong), who has evil plans for China: Like Emperor Han before him, he dreams of unifying the various factions currently vying for power, and plans to release Han and his army from Zi Juan's spell so they can do the dirty work for him. Foolish mortal!
There's nothing inherently wrong with formula: The pulp tradition in which movies like THE MUMMY and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK are rooted depends on age-old, easily identifiable archetypes whose fates are a given from the get-go. If the story is well told, the foregone conclusions don't matter, and therein lies the difference between genre expectations and dull predictability. THE DRAGON EMPEROR walks a fine line between the two. The screenplay by Smallville creators Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, who also wrote SHANGHAI NOON and SHANGHAI KNIGHTS, front-loads a few good ideas, but falters on the execution. There are so few surprises that one not only begins anticipating the next scene, but looking forward to the end.
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