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The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (PG-13)

Brendan Fraser returns as explorer Rick O'Connell. "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor". Photo: Frank Masi.
Brendan Fraser returns as explorer Rick O'Connell. "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor". Photo: Frank Masi.

By Rene Rodriguez, The Miami Herald

In a different year, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor might have squeaked by as a pedestrian but serviceable time-killer, much like the first two Mummy pictures (or even the spin-off The Scorpion King). But this has been the summer of The Dark Knight and Iron Man and Hellboy II and even Wanted and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. This summer, even the merely tolerable has a new standard.

And Tomb doesn’t come close, even though it contains a sword fight between Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh — which, like every other bit of action in the film, is chopped and edited to the point of incomprehensibility by director Rob Cohen (Stealth, xXx), apparently out to prove Michael Bay is a sissy who just wants his mommy. Tomb is the kind of movie you sit through dreading the expository scenes, because the acting is so bad and the dialogue so pointedly written to make sure the little ones in the audience can keep up with the plot (“He’s taking her back to his tomb to raise his army!”).

But then the big action scenes come — loud, chaotic, deafening (did I mention loud?) — and you start longing for another scene in which the typically fine Maria Bello (A History of Violence,Thank You For Smoking) embarrasses herself while playing Evelyn O’Connell, wife of intrepid archaeologist Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser).

Evelyn was originally played by Rachel Weisz, who wisely decided two Mummys were enough and passed on the third. Instead of making the character her own, Bello tries to mimic Weisz’s performance, but she can’t even get past the English accent. Watching her trying to be charmingly British and sexy is akin to watching Meryl Streep in Mamma Mia! without the ABBA songs. It’s painful, excruciating and, whenever the movie requires her to shift into tough action-babe mode, ridiculous.

Fraser, who is capable of much more than he is usually given to do (check out The Quiet American to see how good he really is), is charismatic enough to survive the movie relatively unscathed: Like the best actors, he refuses to coast even when he’s stranded in a lousy movie. You even buy it, sort of, when he’s trading dropkicks with Li. But there are so many characters running around in Tomb, Fraser is practically relegated to supporting-man status.

Perhaps fearing that the actor, who is now 39 (which equals 85 in Hollywood years), may be getting a little long in the tooth to draw in a teen audience, screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar cram in a subplot involving his college-age son (Luke Ford), who is just as adept at fighting off special effects as his dad. They bicker like Harrison Ford and Shia LaBeouf did in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but their relationship adds nothing to the movie except a hook to lure in the CW crowd.

The script of Tomb is one of those insanely contrived contraptions that falls apart the second you stop to think about it (for example: if you’re going to curse an evil emperor and immobilize him for all eternity, shouldn’t you choose a spell that doesn’t have a loophole in which he can return and transform into “the most hideous creatures ever seen!”?) As the shape-shifting baddie, Li spends most of the movie running around under extensive digital makeup, which renders his casting pointless, since it could be anybody under there. He also, at one point, turns into a giant three-headed dragon. No, really.

The loopiest moment in Tomb, however, comes during a fierce gunfight between the outnumbered heroes and a swarm of baddies. Just when things look bleakest, the daughter (Isabella Leong) of an immortal sorceress — don’t ask — yells out a few abracadabras and in swoops a pack of snarling Yetis to help the good guys. As best as I could tell, there are no actual mummies in The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, but it does have abominable snowmen. That’s entertainment.

Cast: Brendan Fraser, Maria Bello, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford, Isabella Leong, John Hannah

Director: Rob Cohen

Screenwriters: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar

Producers: Stephen Sommers, Bob Ducsay, Sean Daniel

A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 100 minutes. Mild vulgar language, violence, gore, adult themes. Playing at area theaters.