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by MARYANN JOHANSON & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & 'm a fan of 1999's The Mummy, which is vital to understanding how deep my disappointment is with The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the third installment in the franchise. I wasn't expecting a lot, not with the departure of creator Stephen Sommers, but I fully anticipated recognizing that I would be overly generous in my estimation of it, and not caring.





But even with the bar set low and my unconditional love set high, I cannot believe how cruelly Tomb rips out my geeky little heart. All the magic has been surgically excised from this charmless exercise in overblown action. With the 1999 film, Sommers gave us a wonderfully cheeky send-up of action comedies, but you can't even point to Tomb as the kind of thing that Sommers was toying with, because this new flick utterly fails to realize that it's riddled with clich & eacute;s or that clich & eacute;s do actually serve storytelling purposes. It steals but does nothing with its ill-gotten gains.





As Tomb opens in ancient China with an evil emperor (Jet Li) who desires immortality, we have Michelle Yeoh's witch informing us that we're about to see a mythic battle between good and evil, with no hint that director Rob Cohen or screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar appreciate that this kind of thing needs to be offered with a soup & ccedil;on of snappy irony. The Mummy winked at this stuff; Tomb doesn't even know that it's something to be winked at.





That attitude should have been stolen from the earlier films, but it was left on the vault floor in favor of ripping off simple plot points, which only emphasizes the lack of imagination here. The emperor gets pissed off when his general (Russell Wong) dares to steal the witch from him -- just like all the stuff with Imhotep and the pharaoh's concubine that got the plot rolling in 1999. The witch cursed the emperor, and he and his army turn into those famous terra cotta statues you've seen pictures of, and are buried for all eternity, or at least until the O'Connells can dig him up.





I would have thought that Gough and Millar -- who wrote Shanghai Noon, which shares a certain tone with the 1999 film -- would have been the perfect team to write a Mummy movie. But all they've done is lift parts of the story from the previous films and from the Indiana Jones saga. Everything else is forced and awkward, like the relationship between Rick and Evelyn O'Connell (Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello, who cannot, alas, adequately stand in for Weisz) and their son, Alex (Luke Ford) -- though this could perhaps be blamed on the fact that the poor kid has aged 20 years since the last film; he's supposed to be 19, yet looks and acts 30.





Small comfort can be found, I suppose, in the fact that we cannot hear half the dialogue over the racket of the incoherent action sequences. Which is a bit of a surprise, since Cohen has previously given us movies that are, while stupid, at least entertaining (Stealth, The Fast and Furious). Perhaps the director realized how unentertainingly stupid the Tomb script was, and choose to try to bury it under video-game CGI -- replacing the beautiful painterly CGI of the earlier films. He doesn't quite succeed. But then that's probably his smallest crime here.





THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR


Rated PG-13


Directed by Rob Cohen


Starring Brendan Fraser, Maria Bello, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Luke Ford

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