Where is the line that makes a bad movie enjoyably bad as opposed to
painfully bad? What is it that makes the works of Ed Wood a hoot while
Manos Hands of Fate is torture to sit through? I think that line is
different for all people, and for me Rob Cohen’s films are firmly
planted on the good side of it. As an example, I loved Stealth when I
saw it – it’s just so amazingly ludicrous, and not in that winking
Torque way. The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is, for me, more of
the same.

I have no attachment to the Mummy franchise or characters. I don’t care
about them in any way, shape or form. I’m sure that this is part of
what helped me enjoy the new Mummy movie while most of my colleagues
were downright horrified. But I think what also helped is that The
hit a very specific chord in me: my love of fantasy monsters. A
lot of people like to go see big spectacle movies with machines in
motion, crashing and exploding (and I kind of like those as well.
Marvel at my upcoming positive review of Death Race!), but for me the
big dumb spectacle that is most exciting is the one with beasts. And
preferably beasts I don’t see a lot on screen. The Mummy: Tomb of the
Dragon Emperor
delivers on that in a big way.

It also delivers on a kind of thrills that Indiana Jones didn’t even
seem to bother with earlier this summer. Weirdly enough, Rob Cohen has
beaten Spielberg in his own game of archeological adventure. Neither
movie is technically any good, and both feature awful scripts and bad
acting, but The Mummy has things like gunfights (where the heroes shoot guns! And kill bad guys!) and booby-trapped
tombs, and it has a sense of scope as it travels from deserts to the
snowy Himalayas with a stop for a chase in Shanghai along the way. And
like Indiana Jones, The Mummy also features an adventurer father coming
to grips with his adventurous son, but in Cohen’s movie that
relationship rings truer. Sitting through The Mummy and enjoying it on
a base level made me realize just how hugely Indiana Jones failed.

The plot’s a bunch of bullshit – China’s first emperor is trapped
inside a terracotta shell, waiting to be awoken and to use his
terracotta army to dominate the world (does that even count as being a
mummy?), and only Brendan Fraser and his family (Maria Bello stepping
in for Rachel Weisz and doing miserably, John Hannah, thankful for the
paycheck and newcomer Luke Ford, the only English-speaking bright spot
in the whole movie as the grown up kid from The Mummy Returns) can stop
him. Along the way they pick up the help of super Chinese hottie
Isabella Leong, whose family has been guarding the tomb for centuries.
Also appearing, and almost completely wasted are Jet Li as the Dragon
Emperor, Michelle Yeoh as the woman who cursed him into terracotta and
most shockingly, Anthony Wong just being pissed away as an evil Chinese
general who wants to resurrect the Emperor to bring China back in
global control.

So it’s all the usual chasing around ‘I have the artifact/you have the
artifact/we have to stop you from activating the magical doohickey’
crap you would expect from a movie like this, but the setting makes
everything feel fresher. Shot on location in China, the movie includes
the aforementioned terracotta army – based on the real thing- , a three
headed dragon, fire breathing stone horses, a Foo dog (those big stone
dogs you see in front of classy Chinese restaurants) and even a trio of
the worst-conceived Yetis in memory. They look like big fucking cats.
But still – Yetis! And the movie ends with a battle between the terracotta army and the revived corpses of those who died building the Great Wall of China. How could I not like this, if just on a conceptual level?

That’s the thing: if a parade of poorly rendered (but in that really
expensive way that has come to define the worst of modern filmmaking)
CGI Chinese monsters are the kind of thing that pique your interest,
you might not walk out of the Tomb of the Dragon Emperor screaming. It
worked for me in a low-rent Jason and the Argonauts way – I never
watched those Harryhausen films for their crackerjack scripts or
masterful thespianism. Of course Harryhausen’s effects piss all over
the truly shoddy Yetis in this movie, but I’m like a dog that’s been
beat too much when it comes to bad CGI – I just accept it now. I expect
$100 million plus movies to have pixel monsters that look like cartoons
while everybody behind the scenes goes on and on about photorealism.
Roger Rabbit is photorealism compared to what we accept in CGI beast

Of course even the monsters don’t make up for the mind-batteringly
atrocious script (every six seconds someone either shouts ‘I hate
mummies!’ (despite there being no mummies in the film) or ‘I know a
thing or two about dealing with mummies!’ (see previous parenthesis))
and the way that Brendan Fraser ceaselessly mugs for the camera. Make
no mistake, it’s bad. But it’s fun bad. It’s probably Mystery Science
bad. If this had been made in Italy in the 1960s we’d be going
apeshit over this piece of crap today, complaining that it has no DVD
release and why can you only see the dubbed version on TV. Actually,
Steve Reeves would have been a welcome addition to this cast.

It’s tough for me to write this review because of how many times I’ve
whined about people settling for dumb movies but here I am settling for
a dumb movie. I think it’s just something about Rob Cohen’s aesthetic
that makes me feel like I’m watching The Million Dollar Movie on a
Sunday afternoon. It’s all about how serious he takes everything and
himself and then delivers a movie so goofy, so full of odd choices and
simply bad ideas (the Yetis kicking a Chinese soldier over an archway
and then fist pumping like they just scored in a soccer match is
amazing in how bad it is, but also how wonderful it is) that makes me
love him. I’ve always been wary of tongue in cheek B movies because I
think the charm of the B movie is a filmmaker trying so hard and
getting it wrong in a very idiosyncratic way. We live in a time when B
movies are the A movies; while Rob Cohen’s trying to make sophisticated
movie he’s really making stuff that fits second on the bill at the
drive-in. I love that.

6.5 out of 10