An inauspicious (hopeful) end for this unwarranted franchise, the third 'Mummy' is an even more overblown and vacuous than its two predecessors - and that's despite a notable change in tone, characters and setting which tries to paint this as a more serious Indy-esque adventure movie.
It's the earnestness of Stephen Sommers original 1999 film that makes it work. Corny, stupid and way too reliant on special effects - it nevertheless never pretended to be anything other than the comedic "Indiana Jones" rip-off it was, and so came with a dumb charm helped along by a decent cast of British thesps and Brendan Fraser in full action hero mode.
The limp sequel however wore out that welcome by commiting the most common mistake of all sequels - doing essentially a bigger and more effects-ridden remake of the first film. As the original was already brimming over with ideas and visuals, 'Returns' became a confusing and messy jumble, overcrowded with convenient script turns, a truly ridiculous storyline, and the inclusion of some uninteresting and poorly acted new characters.
With the latest sequel there has been some good decisions - bringing the focus back on the O'Connell family, restricting the main group of characters, changing the antagonist, and bringing in the generally more grounded albeit less coherent stylings of director Rob Cohen to replace Sommers. Unfortunately they've been outweighed by a lot of bad ones including miscasting, fumbled action sequences, flat humor, and one of the most disjointed and problematic scripts of a major movie this year.
Scribes Alfred Gough and Miles Millar hit all the markers of the previous films - a prologue setting up the villain's backstory, a superpowered immortal antagonist (who can shape change this time), various mystical macguffins to lead our characters between set pieces, and requisite gags about either the bumbling Jonathan (John Hannah) or Rick sprouting tired one-liners.
Yet it all seems stale, flat and inane. The main storyline is as incorporeal as its titular emperor, and is often subject to sudden and inexplicable changes of direction in order to get to the next set piece. Not helping are a tedious father-son fight/reunion subplot, a forced romance between the son and a young Asian girl, and of course the much talked about random elements thrown in for no reason - whether it be a quick side-trip to Shangri-La, or a bunch of Yetis that behave more like football linebackers than fierce beasts.
The characters don't help much either. Rick O'Connell has been forced to the sidelines this time and despite Brendan Fraser's delivery not being much different from his previous works, his lines are certainly clunkier. The most visible problem is Maria Bello, the normally very reliable actress giving her weakest performance to date. Had she been a whole new character it probably would've worked better, but replacing the more comically-adept Rachel Weisz she simply doesn't suit the material and can't match the chemistry Weisz had with Fraser. It's not helped by an awkward attempt at a very posh British accent or jokes made at her expense such as her opening line.
Aussie newcomer Luke Ford fares better as Alex O'Connell, but again he's miscast. Ford looks his age (26) and thus does not believably come off as Fraser's son, and he's stuck with most of the heavy lifting when it comes to the film's painfully awkward family dynamics. The thesp, who impressed earlier this year as an autistic young man in "The Black Balloon", is reduced to mostly smirking or trying to act cocky which doesn't suit him anywhere near as much as his 'father'. Yeoh and Li lend gravitas to their scenes, but they're in so few that each is little more than a cameo. Supporting roles mostly filled by solid Asian actors like Isabella Leong and Russell Wong are cliched and awkward.
Action is poorly shot and edited, never displaying any sense of geography or threat. A chase through the streets of Shanghai is confusing and all over the place, the camera never resting or slowing down. The much anticipated fight scene between Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh displays ridiculous wirework, slow motion and blocking shots that zap any real energy from it - and that's the sole strong fight scene in the film. Cohen's camera thankfully doesn't utilise that extreme shaky close-up that already marred such films as "Hancock" this Summer, but there's a definite need for some more stable and wide angle shots to better establish the action along with a less hyper-edited style.
Visual effects are abundant and work only some of the time. Volume has definitely replaced quality here, though some of the terracotta warrior army action is impressive, ditto a cartoonish but well co-ordinated avalanche sequence. Production values are impressive which makes the wasted filming of the great large-scale downtown Shanghai and Great Wall subterranean chamber sets seem almost criminal. The score is typical pounding bombast with very little in terms of memorable tones.
Those complaining that the latest "Indiana Jones" sequel proved a disappointment compared to its predecessors need only look here to see how bad 'Crystal Skull' could have been. Whereas Spielberg's film had a few clunkers, it was overflowing with ideas and was shot, edited and paced in a way that looks like a masterpiece in comparison to this. 'Emperor' is devoid of clever ideas, over-edited, confusingly shot and awkwardly paced. Its a shame as those involved (Cohen, Yeoh, Li, Bello, Ford, Fraser) have all shown they're capable of far more substantial and intriguing fare.