Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Summer Movies 7: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Originally, I was going to see Pineapple Express this week, but Tropic Thunder and Mirrors are must-see-on-opening-nighters for me, and three movies in one week seemed a bit excessive, so I decided to jettison Pineapple to next week since there’s nothing I’m dying to see opening then. (The House Bunny and Death Race fall under my category of “see in theatres if someone else is paying, otherwise rent” and I may put off Hamlet 2 simply to have something to go see in the long, dull period between this awesome week and September 26th’s Eagle Eye.) But then my family decided to go see The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which falls into the same category as The House Bunny and Death Race, so I figured what the hell.

I was apprehensive because my family’s taste in movies is very hit-or-miss. For every outing to see something like Iron Man, there are two picks akin to Wild Hogs and 27 Dresses. (Having no patience to cajole friends/family into seeing my erratic movie picks, and having little patience to weather people whose movie watching preferences don’t perfectly mesh with my own picky set – slouching down in sixth row center seats (sitting up straight okay but inadvisable that close up), no snacks (bottled water okay), absolutely no talking (previews okay) – I usually choose to go solo.) The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor fell somewhere between those two extremes.

It was certainly nowhere near as bad as I was expecting, given the reviews I’d read. My memory of the earlier Mummy films is a bit foggy as I only saw them once when they were first released seven and nine years ago, but I do remember finding them enjoyable in that doofy swashbuckling way that makes Sahara and the National Treasure films fun, if ultimately forgettable. The cast is stellar. Brendan Fraser does the same thing he always does, but he does it well so who cares. Maria Bello (replacing Rachel Weisz) was great as Evelyn, and Isabella Leong, Luke Ford, and Michelle Yeoh were all excellent. And I’m always happy to see John Hannah. There’s some solid action, some good humor (some of it even coming in the form of downright subtle sight gags), and the story’s not bad. I did a double-take at the credits – apparently it was written by the Smallville guys. That does explain the obsession over a powerful rock.

There were some logistical problems, where the Writers and their Writing suddenly overshadowed the Story. There were a lot of machinations to get all the members of the O’Connell family to Shanghai. Great for the plot of the movie, bad for the plot to resurrect the Dragon Emperor, since it put the people most likely to foil the plans in a convenient place to, you know, foil. And no good reason for this is ever given. It’s not as if Rick and Evelyn were needed for the resurrection. All that was needed was the mystical life diamond thingamajiggy, which the government was happy to fork over. The O’Connells didn't have to be the ones to deliver it. Listen, I know that there’s a certain amount of pipe laying necessary to get all the elements together for the plot to function, but it can be done so in a way that doesn’t insult the intelligence of the audience. (But not, I suppose, by the guys that bring us Smallville, the greatest drain on our country’s precious anvil resources.)

It suffered from some pacing problems, too. I had the same problem with Mummy that I did with Hellboy II – too many big action set pieces in the middle without any kind of real buffer. (It’s also worth noting that both movies feature armies comprised of various non-human elements – gold for Hellboy, and the much-less-imposing terracotta for Mummy.) By the time the never-ending Himalaya scene was rolling, my enthusiasm was starting to wane. And then the yetis made their appearance and my eyes started rolling.

Last year, I submitted a short story to my workshop. It was fantasy/sci-fi with gateways to other dimensions and haunted toasters and mutant birds and all that fun stuff. I included one throwaway line about zombies, because zombies are awesome. My professor tagged that as the one line where the universe became unbelievable. (The haunted toaster was okay, though.) Because there are certain things that just don’t mix, or sometimes you can only load up on so many fantastical elements before it tips. As he went on to explain, it’s why you don’t often see stories that feature vampires and werewolves and zombies. Vampires and werewolves, sure. Vampires and zombies, okay. But all three is pushing it. (At this point, one kid piped up, “Yeah, you don’t ever see, like, vampires and Nazis together”, and I refrained from pointing out that you do because my professor was too busy explaining that vampires and Nazis are in completely different categories that shouldn’t be mentioned in the same breath, except by crazy people.) Anyway, my point is, the yetis were my tipping point. Mummies, sure, fine, I’m with you. But mummies and yetis and a three-headed dragon? You lost me.

Surprisingly, the film missed a few beats I was certain would be hit. After the narrative opening, there’s a scene of Fraser’s Rick O’Connell unsuccessfully fishing. He finally gets fed up trying to get the tackle into the water, as opposed to his neck and the nearby foliage, so he shoots the fish (in a stream, not a barrel). In most movies, that kind of scene comes back towards the end of the film, with the hero successfully performing a similar action as a means to taking out the bad guy. I suppose maybe it’s a good thing that the film…well, I was going to say subverted, but I guess more didn’t pander to my expectation. But it also made me wonder whether that scene was really necessary, as its only reason for being was to set up the funny (but predictable) scene of Evelyn biting the bullet (not figuratively) at dinner. As for the other missing beat, there was a great opportunity for a touching, mummified family reunion between Zi Juan, Lin, and General Yang that I felt was overlooked.

But there is good news for Bechdel fans! The film features three girls who kick ass, even more than the men of the movie. Sure, Brendan Fraser gets to do the actual mummy dispatching because he’s the star and that’s how it goes, but the women are the ones who save his ass (and his life) and give him the tools (literal and figurative) to save the day. There’s even a minor female baddie, though she meets a gruesome fate that can either be viewed as romantic or disturbing, depending on how easily your feminist hackles are raised. It’s also nice to see that Evelyn is not reluctantly dragged back into the adventuring life from humdrum retirement, no, she’s as excited to jump back in as is Rick. It was refreshing to see that level of go-go-girl-power in a flick I assumed was gonna be totally guycentric.

Ultimately, though, I have to stand by my preemptive categorization of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor – go see it if someone else is paying, otherwise wait for the DVD.

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