By Steve Sedlak
Alfred Hitchcock once said that a good film was worth the price of the dinner, theater admission and babysitter necessary for the experience. In a period of unprecedented inflation, none of these services are getting any cheaper (well, the babysitter might be willing to haggle to make sure she can get the next Jonas Brothers album). Accordingly, Americans have become more selective about what they see when they fork over the $20 to go to the movies. Unlike their ancestors, they rarely make movie-going a weekly ritual and will hardly ever go to a movie they’ve heard nothing about. And why should they?-the industry is turning out movies like “The Mummy: the Tomb of the Dragon Emperor,” a tweenage boy’s Orientalist wet dream.First, I have to say that I have nothing against this genre. I loved the first “Mummy” movie and the “Indiana Jones” series. In fact, I think action movies are possibly the best fare that the film industry provides to summer moviegoers. There’s an old-fashioned delight in collapsing into an uncomfortable movie theater chair in an excessively air-conditioned room and not having to think about why this dude with a weird asymmetrical haircut is killing everyone. “The Mummy: the Tomb of the Dragon Emperor” brings back Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) as its protagonist. Maria Bello plays Rick’s wife, Evelyn, formerly portrayed by Rachel Weisz.Evelyn’s character is far less sexy this time around-in fact, Bello is kind of a turn-off. Her British accent and mannerisms don’t compare to the straight-laced playfulness of Weisz’s rendition of Evelyn in the first “Mummy.” Instead Bello’s character comes off as affected and prudish. She’s definitely not the type of human being you’d want to take on an adventure. If you’ve ever seen “Temple of Doom,” she’s like a toned down version of that girl.So the first ingredient to a horrible movie is there: bad acting. Maybe a wonderful story will save us from regretting the $10 ticket price? No. There are no surprises in a movie like this. I take that back. I was surprised by one thing: Jet Li’s appearance. As I watched this train wreck of an action film derail on screen, I asked myself time and again, what wasn’t Jet Li thinking? Did they dupe him into this? Did he lose a bet at a game of high stakes poker?The film starts by presenting a dubious historical backstory set in ancient China. Some crazy Emperor Han dude (Jet Li plays this fictional character loosely based on Qin Shi Huang) wants immortality and finds a witch who says she knows the secret, Zi Yuan. He finds out that his first in command, General Ming, has fallen in love with her and plans to kill them both. Ming gets the good old drawn and quartered bit, and Emperor Han stabs Zi Yuan. But then she curses the emperor and gets away!Things settle down for a couple thousand years. If you are willing to ignore the copious historical fallacies in this section, it isn’t so bad.Suddenly it’s 1946. After the war, the O’Connells have retired after doing work for the government. Some horrible “life is unsexy if you aren’t kicking ass” vignettes bore Rick, Evelyn, you, me, and the entire audience and generally make us all feel a little uncomfortable (and possibly a little less Anglophilic).The couple is hired to be couriers by the British government to accompany a big old rock back to China. Nationalists steal the rock and revive the Emperor, and the movie goes up in equally crazy flames from here on out. A so-bad-it’s-kinda-good horrible plot line runs through the rest of the movie’s excessive running time, complete with Yetis and a trip to Shangri-La.Oh, and the young white dude of course ends up getting the exotic Asian beauty. Hoorah for a revival of the feminized Orient! Edward Said no doubt had a field day.The semi-comedic vignettes that open this movie endow it with an unintentional artistic flair. In the film’s final scene, Evelyn’s brother vows to go to a place where there are no mummies (Peru). As we watch his car drive away down a festive Shanghai thoroughfare, titles appear on the screen explaining that mummies appeared in Peru shortly after his arrival. They are the only titles used in the film, and like the vignettes, they stuck out like a throbbing sore thumb and quickly swept away the illusionary cape to bare the film’s artistic device. It was almost like that bit in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” when subtitles appear only for a scene, describing how the couple feels about each other. Except Allen did it on purpose, and it seemed far less comedic in a pathetic way.In a final Orientalist jab at my heart, I cried in my seat as the credits, littered with Chinese characters as random as “tree” and “water” rolled down the screen. They bore an uncanny resemblance to the Pepsi-stained popcorn coating the Cineplex aisles in their sheer excess.See this movie, but see it for free. Maybe even by questionable means.By the way, the next movie in the franchise is called The Mummy: Monument of the American President. I predict that it’s going to have something to do with Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and President Taft. At least I hope it involves President Taft-that way the comedic vignettes would be justified.