Bad Example: The Mummy – Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor

by Jay Stringer

A strange thing happened as I started work on this weeks article. I got confused.

Okay, let’s be honest, that’s not all that strange. If you were to add up all of the states and emotions I go through on a daily basis, the word confused would probably describe just about all of them. But bear with me here, okay? Dramatic licence.

I sat down to watch a film that I was pre-programmed to dislike. I’d never seen it, but I knew I would hate it, and I knew I could tear it apart for Matinee Idles. It was the third film in a series, and I had already hated the first two with a passion. I had zero interest in the characters, the world of the films bored me and the writing had sent me up the wall.

Worse still, the first two films had garnered a lot of praise, whilst the third had been panned. So, slam dunk, right?

Something happened that I wasn’t expecting. Somewhere between the opening credits and the final love letters to the caterers, I almost enjoyed Mummy 3.

(It wasn’t called Mummy 3. You know it and I know it. They went with the title of The Mummy; Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor, which probably seemed like a good idea at the time. But let’s just agree it was Mummy 3.)

I’ll backtrack a bit and deal with the first two films. I seemed to be the only person in the theatre both times who was in pain during the films. I couldn’t find anything to like in them, aside from the fact that the CGI department got very good at rendering sand. Stephen Sommers doesn’t make good films. He just doesn’t. And no, don’t even try and convince me that Deep Rising is a good film.

He doesn’t seem to be able to follow the basics of telling a story, and he doesn’t understand that throwing lots of things at the screen doesn’t equate to narrative. He clearly owes a big debt to Spielberg, but seems to have learned none of the lessons. He hasn’t picked up any of Uncle Steven’s gift for structure or characterisation, and I’m fairly sure he thinks Jaws would have been better if the shark showed up in the first five minutes and hummed its own theme tune to the audience.

The central protagonist, Rick O’Connell, comes off as a teenager’s drunken impression of Indiana Jones; all false grumpiness, finger pointing and shouting. If you take the scenes of Indy shouting at Willie Scott, and mix them with Roger Moore’s Bond, you have the basis of Rick O’Connell.

Then there was a Scot doing a really bad English accent. Presumably all of the English actors in the world were off sick that day, and couldn’t audition for the role.

The main problems with the films were how long they devoted to convincing us of the story. There were flashbacks, prophecies, reincarnations, magic, prologues, epilogues, fate and probably a few cliché’s that I’ve forgotten. Any story that spends a third of its time convincing you that it needs to be a story? Run away.

Did we need this much convincing in Raiders Of The Lost Ark? Nope. Some dudes turned up, asked Indy to look for the Ark, job done. Why is he looking for it? Because he was asked to. What does it do? Wait and see.

Both Mummy films needed to give us epic prologues and back stories, then riddle the plots with twists and turns that were all meant to distract us from the fact that it was all a contrived mess.

So how on earth did I end up enjoying Mummy 3?

Truth be told, I’m still working on figuring that one out.

It has a lot counting against it. It starts with one of those epic prologues that I’ve already mentioned, giving us a backstory that would be much better told to us during the actual story. It starts with the line, “Long ago, a mythic battle between good and evil…” You know, if you’re so uncertain about your story that you need to tell me it’s mythic? You have problems. Don’t tell me, show me. Audiences are clever enough to figure things out by themselves.

And the annoying accent is still there, but this time it’s topped by an even worse attempt. I like Maria Bello as an actor, I think she’s interesting to watch and always manages to find a way to keep you drawn in. She represents the duality of this film; on the one hand she brings an interesting new edge to Evelyn, but on the other she represents the cheese and cliché of the whole franchise. Lets get the bad bits out of the way first, that accent sucks. I can’t do an American accent to save my life, but I’m not starring in a major Hollywood movie. I’m also not sure I ever buy her in the maternal role she plays for much of the film, there’s just something missing there.

But as for the good, she brings a new dynamic to the relationship with Rick O’Connell. Almost as if she truly is the character she plays, she seems to ground him a little and dial down the drunken Indy impression. He’s calmer and more restrained around her. Frankly, I also buy them as an adult couple more than I did with Rachel Weisz. Weisz herself is none to shabby as an actor, but the chemistry with Brendan Fraser was always too goofy, too much of a cartoon romp, for them to be believable as a couple. Bello Nails that.

The film gives us Rick and Evelyn as an older couple, settled into a retirement of sorts after their previous adventures. There are hints of espionage, of treasure, and of many things that were all probably far more interesting than the previous two films. They’re listless and looking to put the spark back into both their lives and their relationship. The few scenes that deal with this feel truer than anything else in the series.

The addition of their grown up son, Alex, had the potential to derail the film by itself. I’m not entirely convinced it works, but it comes close, and seeing the young and rebellious Alex contrasted against his older and wiser father lead to some well acted moments.

Another refreshing change from the previous films is that the director, Rob Cohen, seems to be aware of the films weaknesses. A good storyteller or showman knows to accentuate the positives while hiding the negatives, but one of Sommers biggest problems is that he lacks that quality filter. He’ll throw all of his ideas at the screen and then leave them there, rather than working out what works and what doesn’t. Rob Cohen seems acutely aware that some parts of the film are not going to work, and he speeds by them as quickly as possible. As a result it’s far leaner and therefore a far better story. It races from A to B to C via a few dodgy Yetis and a couple of immortal beings.

In the final act is does turn back into a Mummy film, complete with big un-dead armies fighting an epic battle in well rendered dust, but it does throw in a few interesting stakes to make the action matter. The fact that the film has wasted so little time in getting us toward this battle wins it a few points, I was less inclined to snooze through this one because it hadn’t taken so much waffle to get there.

So, can I say this is a good example? Hell no. It has too many problems. To many contrivances and lazy moments. The plot is tired and predictable, the twists are so well worn that they’re more like grooves. It’s basically a honing of the same story we’ve been given twice before, but with a few different settings and a lot more focus.

But this is a rare beast, it’s a film that succeeds by being better than the ones before it. Compared to the bad examples of The Mummy and The Mummy ReturnsMummy 3 could have been written by Paddy Chayefsky (and that’s a bit of Matinee Idles continuity for you, folks.)

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