"The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" finds Rick O'Connell (Brendan Fraser) and wife Evelyn (Maria Bello taking over for Rachel Weisz) heading East in hopes of recapturing the adrenaline of adventure.
They're retired following World War II, apparently living richly off of the $800 million worldwide box office of the first two "Mummy" films. The O'Connells are British aristocrat-adventurers who have retired too young and are begging to get back in the mummy-slaying game.
The film, directed by Rob Cohen ("The Fast and the Furious") who takes the franchise's reins from Stephen Sommers, opens with our historical backdrop: a ludicrously extravagant tale of "a mythic battle between good and evil played out in ancient China," as a narrator informs.
Egypt, it appears, no longer has the trademark on mummies.
Jet Li plays the Dragon Emperor, an emphatically bad dude who in 200 B.C. - as this film tells it - built the Great Wall of China on top of thousands of servants worked to death. In his search for immortality, he's tricked and he and his army are mummified in a giant tomb.
A few thousands years later, enter the O'Connell's grown son Alex (Luke Ford).
It's been seven years since "The Mummy Returns" and fans will surely be surprised that their hero (Fraser, who's 39 in real life) has already seeded ground to a younger actor. (Harrison Ford's archaeologist action star has yet to cede to this progeny.)
Alex is just as intrepid as his parents. He uncovers the tomb of the Dragon Emperor, which has been styled on a real archaeological find: China's Teracotta Army, the thousands of clay soldiers found in 1974. They've here been reimagined as mummies frozen in time, complete with mummy horses.
If this sounds absurd, it is. Like recent films such as "300" or the new "Indiana Jones," "Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" uses history like a prop - a loose costume for ludicrous plot lines.
These movies revel in telling "ancient" tales, but dodgy history doesn't lead to anything but myths. Younger generations are going to have some funky ideas about the past.
Alex's big find, as you might imagine, leads to considerable trouble that eventually unlocks further mysteries, such as a trio of yetis (they're actually kind of cool) and Shangri-La. There's an impressive chase scene through nighttime Shanghai and a giant battle sequence between thousands who have been raised from dead. (It looks a lot like the climax of the 1992 cult fave "Army of Darkness" without the comedy.)
The action is so relentless that Fraser has little room for any real comic work, which is a shame. He has to utter at one point: "Here we go again!"
With the jawline of a matinee idol but the geeky clumsiness to make him interesting, Fraser seemed poised for a more mature career after his performances in 1998's "Gods and Monsters" and 2002's "The Quiet American."
But this summer, he's packed the double whammy of the 3-D "Journey to the Center of the Earth" and this third "Mummy" - a combination that deserves a penance of at least a dozen indie films.
Ford may have the bangs to be Fraser's heir apparent, but he has nothing else to supply. Isabella Leong is relatively forgettable as his love interest.
Ultimately, there's something fitting to today's Hollywood about a 9-year-old franchise devoted to raising grotesques from the dead. One of Fraser's upcoming projects, after all, reunites him with Sommers for "G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra."
Sequel- and remake-crazy Hollywood could learn from the "Mummy" series: better to leave it buried.
"The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG-13 for violence and gore, and for some language. Running time: 112 minutes. One star out of four.