It is an interesting fact of Chinese culture that the First Emperor and founder of the Qin Dynasty in 221 BC is not infrequently portrayed as a bad guy. Although more or less heroic in films such as "The Emperor and the Assassin," or "Hero," he is still the antagonist, and the freedom-loving would-be assassins are the heroes. In this film, Jet Li portrays the ruler as ruthless, cruel, and treacherous, and deserving of the fate he suffers at the hands of the witch Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh).
Despite the good parts, the rather disappointing plot reduces the film to popcorn entertainment of the thrill-ride type. Fun, but far from great.
Detailed analysis and spoilers behind the cut:
The story picks up in 1946. Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evelyn O'Connell (Maria Bello, taking over the role from Rachel Weisz) are settling into dubious enjoyment of retirement after having evidently worked as intelligence agents for the British in World War II. (As did Indiana Jones--who knew that archeologists were in such demand as spies?) Besides boredom, other trouble on the home front centers around their scapegrace son, Alex (Luke Ford), who can't get over having been ignored by his father while Dad was out fighting the Nazis, and has left school to secretly mount his own expedition to war-torn China in company with a distinctly shady tomb raider (David Calder).
Alex's discovery of the spectacular tomb brings secret backers out of the woodwork: warlord General Yang (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) and his assistant Choi (Jessey Meng), who mean to raise the Dragon Emperor in order to unite China, and then the world under his immortal rule. Of course Rick, Evelyn, and her boozy brother John (John Hannah,running a bar in Shanghai, for no sensible reason) all get involved and mayhem ensues. And, once the action starts, it's pretty much all mayhem, all the time. There's a roller-coaster quest across China and into Tibet to try to stop the Dragon Emperor which of course does not succeed until the last moment, but we expect that. What bugs me is that the good guys SHOULD have gotten their butts kicked, since most of the time they have no coherent plan of action whatsoever.
This is nowhere more irritating than the Golden Tower sequence on the road to Tibet. Rick and Alex have each provided a crate of guns and spend time in father-son bonding by debating the merits of the Russian PPSH sub-machine gun over the American Thompson, instead of working out how they might prevent a company of heavily-armed troops getting accross the rope bridge. (Hello? It's a rope bridge--why not cut the ropes? But, no--.) And of course, they give the notoriously unreliable John the absolutely critical job, which he WILL fumble. Then, in the next leg, Zi Juan and her daughter Lin (Isabella Leong), who have been guarding the Well of Immortality for 2000 years, let themselves be taken flat-footed when the Emperor does show up. Of course, this sets up the climax at the Great Wall, where the terra-cotta army gets to march. (I was surprised to discover that the First Emperor did in fact build a "great wall", but of which little remains and is not the same as the wall we know and see in the film, which was built during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).)
Good things in the movie inlcuded the special effects, makeup, and art design. Characters are mixed. Brendan Fraser's Rick was never the brains of the outfit, but he seems particularly thickheaded in this installment. his son Alex is a bit brighter, but hindered by his competion with his dad. All the women in the film kick butt, notably Bello fighting all out in evening gown, stockings and heels in the museum scene, but also Leong as Lin, and Meng as the faithful-unto-death Choi. Of course Michelle Yeoh is wonderful to watch, and we would both have gone to see the movie for her alone. Jet Li's acting consists mainly of frowning and grimacing when not covered in heavy makeup, but it appears he had fun being the villain of the piece.
All up, mindless fun. Very violent with lots of fantasy/scary images, so leave the kiddies home. The movie has been doing good box office, especially overseas, and it looks like "Mummy IV" will be in the works--.