It's barely possible that “The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” is a colossal in-joke, a spoof of all the adventure movies that have drab actors, laughable computer-generated effects, a threadbare plot, continuity lapses and one-liners that repeatedly fall flat.
But I'm afraid it just stinks.
Surely Rob Cohen, who directed an enjoyable film as recently as 1996 (“Dragonheart”), knows muck when he rolls a camera crew through it? Surely the writing team of Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, whose “Shanghai Noon” was a masterpiece of construction by comparison, might have assembled more than this silly series of barely connected incidents?
Take the abominable snowmen. I didn't mind that they came out of nowhere, that a young Chinese woman suddenly spouted commands in yeti, that they looked like furry puppets produced by computers that would scarcely be able to reproduce a Pac-Man board. But I drew the line when one snowman kicked an evil Chinese officer over a gate that looked like a goalpost, while the other made a football referee's symbol for a field goal.
The whole affair seems so tired – not just overfamiliar, but droopy and sad. Brendan Fraser slogs through the role of Rick O'Connell, 1940s superspy and two-time mummy slayer. Maria Bello, made up embarrassingly to look like Rachel Weisz (who wouldn't reprise her role as Evelyn, Rick's wife) prattles in a stiff British accent with a detached expression.
They've been joined by comic relief John Hannah, who overacts as Evelyn's brother with the fervor of a man who fears he'll never work again, and Luke Ford, who has all the charisma of a paper clip in the role of Rick's headstrong son, Alex. Luckily, his love interest is Lin, played by equally bland Isabella Leong. Did I mention there's a vomiting yak?
The plot has college dropout Alex discovering the lost tomb of Emperor Han (Jet Li), who built the Great Wall of China around the time of Jesus and buried his enemies beneath it. Han wanted to achieve immortality but killed the lover of the woman who could give it to him. So she (Michelle Yeoh) cursed him and his army, turning them to terra cotta – unless a drop of blood from someone who is pure of heart is placed on the magic diamond of Shangri-La, which will point the way to the Sacred Pool of Eternal Life. Or something like that. (Why don't witches ever apply a proper curse? “You're terra cotta forever, and that's it!”)
I left with two thoughts. First, no summer needs two movies about an aging anthropologist who keeps a longtime love interest alive, serves as father (surrogate or otherwise) to a rowdy, college-age guy and tries to deal with paranormal events and a power bent on world domination.
Second, Jet Li made his English-language debut in “Lethal Weapon 4” 10 years ago this summer, playing another super-warrior who beat up good guys until Mel Gibson gave him a butt-whipping (which was slightly less likely than my knocking out Andre the Giant). And who worked on the story for “Lethal Weapon IV”? Alfred Gough and Miles Millar! Jet Li ought to stop kicking screen enemies and start kicking his writers.