The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the third chapter of the surprisingly popular Mummy series, finally "gets it."
Director Stephen Sommers played things irritatingly straight in the first two movies, creating unavoidably silly moments.
Enter director Rob Cohen, whose penchant for energetic schlock (Stealth, xXx, The Fast and the Furious) comes in handy. Cohen also has affection for Chinese action culture, proven by his underrated Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, which enables him to move the Mummy series out of Egyptian desert tombs into different sarcophagus surroundings.
The result is enjoyable junk, practically another Indiana Jones sequel that doesn't take itself nearly as seriously.
Brendan Fraser returns as archaeologist Rick O'Connell, who has grown bored with the lush 1946 countryside life that defeating evil Imhotep twice before has afforded him. His wife, Evelyn (Maria Bello, replacing Rachel Weisz), writes novels based on their adventures but has run out of material. An offer to deliver a gem leading to the Pool of Eternal Life in China is exactly the spark they need.
Meanwhile, their son Alex (Luke Ford) has quit college to seek the tomb of Emperor Han (Jet Li), whose plot to control China ended with a curse that turned him into a terra-cotta coffin. The gem can resurrect Han, which is what evil nationalist soldiers plan to do for their nefarious benefit. It's basic stuff, yet presented with flair and the proper whiff of cheese.
The Chinese angle is the film's strength, bringing sights and intrigue that moviegoers usually miss because it's reserved for subtitled art house hits like Curse of the Golden Flower and Hero. Cohen borrows some of Yimou Zhang's signatures: skies darkened by arrows simultaneously released, hordes of advancing soldiers, palace intrigue and Great Wall scenery. Tomb of the Dragon Warrior is the largest Western production ever permitted in China, and a nice change of pace.
Cohen stages action as well as anyone, including a Shanghai chase with fireworks, bazookas and a rousing tomb brawl with the undead. Yet there's always the sense that we've seen this before — except those ferocious Yetis — two months ago when Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opened.
That sense is also present when Evelyn gets directly involved in a Marion Ravenwood sort of way, and especially with the showcasing of Alex's intrepid nature, which sets up the franchise's next generation. Even that ploy has silly undertones: Rick and Alex resemble brothers more than father and son (Fraser is a youthful 39, so his having college-age offspring is a stretch).
Tomb of the Dragon Emperor adds a fitfully satisfying coda to the most exciting summer for action flicks in years. But it has a tough time keeping up with Batman, Iron Man and, especially, the Joneses.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org; Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.