The year is 1947, but the sarcophagus about to be opened houses an evil emperor of 2000 years past, and once he - martial arts star Jet Li - gets hold of the magic elixir of eternal life, well, there's no stopping what he and his dusted off Terra Cotta army can do.
Full of exclamatory one-liners ripped from a copy of Indiana Jones for Dummies ("If he's awakened, all mortals should despair!"), and with the breathless cast spewing putatively witty rejoinders that get drowned out by pows and bangs, Mummy 3 should have been kept under wraps. Despite its spiffy production design and cool Ray Harryhausen-inspired special effects - a skeletoid army, a trio of abominable snowmen, a three-headed gorgon and a scary half-lion/half-dog beast - the movie bogs down in tiresome good guys vs. bad guys action cliches.
And every cutaway to Fraser's quippy Rick ends with a kerplunk. The square-jawed movie star - now competing against himself in multiplexes with his Jules Verne joy-ride, Journey to the Center of the Earth - has turned into a human cartoon. Wide-eyed, a forelock dangling over his brow, the guy radiates negative charisma. Anyone and everyone in his path turns to stone.
Along with Bello, the aforementioned Hannah and the demon-eyed Li, that path is mightily crowded: the classy Michelle Yeoh has her own history with the evil emperor, guarding the pool of eternal life; Luke Ford is onboard as Rick and Evelyn's grown-up adventurer son; Isabella Leong is the beautiful daughter of Yeoh's Zi Yuan, and there's a pair of post-World War II Chinese paramilitarists - a sneering, growling general and his scar-faced, sinisterly sexy sidekick - leading bazooka-equipped troops.
Director Rob Cohen tips his baseball cap to the classic Lost Horizon (there's a Himalayan trek leading to Shangri-La) and the same Republic serials that inspired Spielberg and Lucas' Indy pics. But Cohen, the man behind the cheesily great biopic Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, seems to have forgotten how to choreograph and shoot this stuff - the fight scenes with Hong Kong greats Li, Yeoh and company are as uninspired as the dialogue.
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor ** (out of four stars)
Directed by Rob Cohen. With Brendan Fraser, Jet Li, Maria Bello, Luke Ford, John Hannah, Isabella Leong and Michelle Yeoh. Distributed by Universal Pictures.
Running time: 1 hour, 53 mins.
Parent's guide: PG-13 (action, violence, adult themes)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or email@example.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.