Universal // 2008 // 112 Minutes // Rated PG-13
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // December 16th, 2008
A new evil awakens...
Third verse, same as the first...
Twenty-two hundred years ago, Emperor Han (Jet Li, Hero), having conquered all of China, attempts to make himself immortal. Unfortunately for him, he does something incredibly stupid -- he pisses off Michelle Yeoh (Tomorrow Never Dies). Her character is named Zi Juan, but that's immaterial. You don't cross Yeoh, yo. Hell, James Bond knew better. Instead of giving Han immorality, she gives him the middle finger in the form of a curse that transforms him and his armies into life-sized terra cotta lawn gnomes.
Jump ahead to 1946. Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser, Gods and Monsters) and his wife Evie O'Connell, having spent World War II doing espionage work for the Allies, are trying, with limited success, to adjust to retirement. Rick's attempt at finding inner peace through fly fishing must be considered a failure, as he ends up emptying his gun into the river in frustration. In his defense, he does bring home fish for dinner. Hey, whatever works. Evie has become a successful writer, having written the novelizations of the previous two movies. She has also had extensive plastic surgery and now looks remarkably like Maria Bello (A History of Violence). Even their sex life, a driving force (so to speak) in the previous two movies, has taken a turn for the worse, mainly because Rick snores like a water buffalo in heat. When offered the chance to return the priceless Eye of Ishtar to China, they jump at the chance to do, well, anything. They take some comfort in knowing that their son Alex (Luke Ford, The Junction Boys) is safely ensconced in his studies at Harvard.
Silly parents! Alex is currently on an archaeological dig in the middle of China, in search of the lost tomb of the Dragon Emperor -- a.k.a. Mr. Terra Cotta Head himself. Alex finds it, despite the best attempts of the beautiful Lin, who has sworn a sacred oath to prevent anyone from discovering the tomb (where have we heard that before?). But what they don't know is that they are all being manipulated by General Ming (Russell Wong, Romeo Must Die), who seeks to resurrect the Dragon Emperor in hopes of returning China to greatness...
How stupid is this movie? During a pivotal fight sequence, a yeti (literally) kicks a bad guy up and over a massive gate. Another yeti pauses for a moment before raising his hands to indicate that the field goal was good. The kicker pumps a fist in victory.
Gridiron nonsense aside, the plot is a stale rehash of ideas and plot points from the first two movies, infused with a dose of Chinese history -- the terra cotta army actually exists. Most of the twists and all of the jokes are telegraphed from a mile away, resulting in an astounding lack of tension. When Rick takes a CGI knife in the chest (in super slo-mo) to save his son, there's never any doubt that he will be miraculously saved, nor is there any doubt that the event will reconcile father and son. Like I said, predictable. In contrast, when Evie was killed in the previous movie, it happened so quickly and brutally that it caught viewers off guard -- even though viewers probably knew Evie will make a miraculous recovery of her own. Director Rob Cohen has a flair for thrill-ride sequences, but lacks Steven Sommers' deft touch with scenes that don't involve explosions.
The actors try like hell, but the script gives them nothing but clichés to work with. Jet Li is the titular villain, but he is present primarily as a CGI incarnation. Once the movie gets revved up, that incarnation isn't particularly expressive, what with being clay and all. When you contrast that with the incredibly expressive visage of Arnold Vosloo, the drawbacks become readily apparent. It's a shame, because it effectively wastes Li's acting talents for most of the film. By the time he is back to flesh and blood (sort of), there's little acting left to do, only stunt work. Brendan Fraser, because there are so many other characters, almost literally has to fight for screen time. In some scenes he's the action hero, in some scenes, he's the comic foil; but he's never both at the same time -- which was the main charm of his performances in the first two movies. And of course there's the Maria Bello thing. Bello is an amazing actress, and she throws everything she has into the part, but she lacks that doe-eyed goofiness Rachel Weisz brought to the table. The script gives her nothing apart from a clever introduction that acknowledges the change in performer. When she tries to work out her writer's block by leaping about the study with a sword, it's more reminiscent of Kathleen Turner in Jewel of the Nile than Weisz. (For one thing, Weisz would have done much more damage to the study.) Secondly, the chemistry with Bello and Fraser just doesn't match Fraser's and Weisz's smouldering desire. Multiple attempts to replicate the chemistry fall flat, mainly because they're all talk -- there's none of the "wildly inopportune passionate embrace in the midst of a death-defying situation" that was a running gag in the second movie. The end result is that Evie becomes a fairly generic character -- which is the fate that befalls the rest of the cast as well. Oh, and John Hannah is criminally underused.
Audio and video are magnificent. Director Rob Cohen's commentary track, however, is a disappointment. He offers some useful information, but he never sounds particularly animated about the proceedings, and had a tendency to just tell us what is happening on screen. The extended and deleted scenes are of little consequence; there are a few minor character moments that possibly should have stayed in the final cut. The various featurettes have some interesting info, but there's waaay too much overlap.
The movie has two things going for it. First, the cinematography is dazzling, particularly the sweeping vistas of the Himalayas. The second is Michelle Yeoh, who brings her own particular blend of serene dignity to the proceedings. She elevates every scene she's in, and her final confrontation with Han could have been one for the ages had it been allowed to continue; given that we are talking about Michelle Yeoh v. Jet Li, two icons of martial arts, that battle is over far too quickly. The audience would be much better served watching more of these two fighting than the "been there, done that" business of dispatching CGI hoards to their pixilated dooms.
The closing credit sequence is wonderful -- the period graphics and a rousing theme from composer Randy Edelman would have made a great main title sequence. Instead, we get a weak CGI aping of the first movie's opening sequence. Sometimes different is better, people! (I know, that's crazy talk.)
In one of the extras, Brendan Fraser comments that the final battle is about the eternal conflict between the oppressor (the Dragon Emperor's terra cotta army) and the oppressed (the army of those who died building the Great Wall). While that's a fascinating dynamic, it also accentuates that the focus of the movie has shifted from the live characters to the CGI ones. While the movie is technically amazing, the CGI characters can't match their human counterparts when it comes to heart, and that's the one thing this movie desperately needs.
Wastin' away again in Terracottaville
Searching for my lost Eye of Ishtar.
Some people claim that Gen'ral Yang's to blame
But I know it's all Zi Juan's fault.
The defendant is guilty, but the court finds enough residual goodwill remains from the first two movies to warrant a suspended sentence.
Review content copyright © 2008 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13
* Director's Commentary
* Extended/Deleted Scenes
* Making of
* From City to Desert
* Legend of the Terra Cotta
* Jet Li: Crafting the Emperor Mummy
* Creating New and Supernatural Worlds
* A Call to Action
* Preparing for Battle
* Digital Copy
* Cinema Verdict Review
* Live Stunt Demonstration