1999's The Mummy proved a spectacular success at the box office because it had just enough of the requisite ingredients of a summer popcorn flick to satisfy moviegoers: over-the-top special effects, witty one-liners, a serviceable plot and solid chemistry between its two leads, Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz. 2001's The Mummy Returns added Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and even more special effects to the mix, but lost some of the charm that made audiences fall in love with its predecessor. Still, it managed to earn over $200 million at the domestic box office. Seven years later, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor attempts to resuscitate the once-robust saga, with disappointing results.
Fraser returns in the role of thrill-seeking archaeologist Rick O'Connell, but noticeably absent is Weisz, who opted not to appear in the follow-up. Replacing her in the role of Rick's wife Evelyn is Maria Bello, who gamely tries to fill her predecessor's shoes.
The story begins a few decades after the last Mummy flick, with Rick and Evelyn now retired and living in a country estate in England, their adventuring days now firmly behind them. Despite their protests, their 20-year-old son Alex (Luke Ford) has quit college to take up the family business.
But the O'Connell parents tire quickly of domestic life, and jump at the chance to return to action when their son inadvertently awakens a ruthless, long-dead Han Emperor (played by Jet Li) from the dead. So they head to China, where they're joined by newcomers Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong, to take on the Emperor and his vast army of undead Terra Cotta soldiers.
We're used to preposterous plotlines from the Mummy's supernatural saga, but what really stretches the limits of believability in Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is the relationship between the three lead actors. Bello looks about 10 years older than her supposed husband Fraser, who looks about 10 years older than his supposed son Ford. This bewildering distraction of this miscast trio, together with Ford's inscrutable accent (sometimes New Yorker, sometimes Australian, always terrible), makes it impossible to make any connection with them.
Indeed, the two characters who share the most chemistry are franchise veteran John Hannah (who returns as hapless sidekick Jonathan Carnahan) and an animatronic yak. In one scene, Hannah's four-legged friend gets airsick and vomits on him, prompting him to yell, "The yak yacked!" And that was one of the better lines in the film.
In the end there's the now-standard massive battle, replete with spectacular special effects, between our heroes and the Emperor's army of the undead. There are a few thrilling moments, and Fraser does manage to get in a handful of funny quips, and it's refreshing to see the action unfold in a new and interesting Far East location. But the effect wears off all too soon, leaving us with nothing but the empty, forgettable shell of a popcorn flick.