Dir. Rob Cohen, Germany/Canada/US, 2008, 112 mins
Cast: Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, Michelle Yeo
Review by Carol Allen
There are a few sequels, which match or even surpass the original. The Indiana Jones franchise kept pretty much up-to-speed and The Godfather: Part II for my money was even better than the first. However, the general rule seems to be that the more sequels there are to a movie, the more the original quality that made the first one a hit drops away, Pirates of the Caribbean being a prime example. And so too, sadly, it is with The Mummy films.
The first one back in 1999 sparkled with humour and originality. The Mummy Returns (2001), while loaded with cinematic spectacle, had lost its edge, particularly in the relationship between explorer Rick O'Connell and his archaeologist wife Evelyn, who were by now lumbered with a brattish seven-year-old son Alex. In this movie Alex has grown up into a still rather brattish young adult, played by Luke Ford and it is he who rouses the Chinese Dragon Emperor (Li) from the 2,000-year long sleep imposed on him by the enchantress Zi Yuan (Yeo). If one’s going ― to be picky, the Emperor isn’t a mummy in the true sense of the word. Rather than being wrapped in cloth, Zi Yuan has imprisoned him and his army in terracotta a life-sized terracotta army. And like so many of the Bond villains, his ambition is world domination and, in his case, immortality via the magical waters of Shangri-la. It's up to the O'Connells to stop him.
There is still plenty of cinematic spectacle in the movie. Apart from the aforementioned army, there's a literally skeleton army of the emperor's slaughtered victims from the past, whom Zi Yuan rouses from their graves to battle with their former oppressor, some exciting chase sequences, rather a lot of Chinese fireworks, an avalanche and, best of all, a pack of Himalayan Yetis, a.k.a. Abominable Snowmen, who come to the aid of our heroes.
The characters though seem to be somewhat overwhelmed by the sort of impressive CGI effects, which we now take for granted. Apart from a beautifully shot prologue giving us the 2,000-year-old back-story of how the emperor was entombed, Li has little chance to show the balletic fighting skills, which made his name. While in his long sleep the monarch seems to have developed the unexplained ability to morph impressively into various scary creatures such as a three-headed dragon, which gives the actor himself even less screen time. Bello, who has taken over the role of Evelyn from Rachel Weisz and Fraser as her husband get little opportunity to develop their characters any further, while John Hannah, who provided much of the original movie's humour as Evelyn’s cowardly brother, is almost superfluous in this. The most charismatic characters are Zi Yuan, looking surprisingly good for a woman who has 2,000 years on the clock and her daughter Lin, Alex's love interest, who is presumably a few years short of her 2,000th birthday.
The Mummy Returns took place in 1933. This film is set in 1946, when the British secret service persuades the more than willing O'Connells out of their boring Oxfordshire retirement to travel to Shanghai and take part in another adventure. A reference is made there to services they rendered during the war but we never find out what those services were. I think we should be told. That might after all make the basis for a more interesting and character-led script next time, should there be any danger of a fourth mummy film rising from the grave.