Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh: From ‘Tai Chi Master’ to ‘The Mummy’

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The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, the third in the popular franchise, pretty much follows the same plot as the previous films: Mummy comes to life, wants to take over the world and is eventually defeated by Brendan Frasier and cohorts (including Maria Bello taking over for Rachel Weisz as wife/fellow adventurer and estranged son Luke Ford).

But this time, the action shifts to 1946 China and the mummy is the fierce warrior Emperor Han (Jet Li), who is entombed with his entire Terracotta army by the witch Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh). When the Emperor is released from his curse by the evil General Yang (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), Frasier and company must stop him before he and his army become all powerful. Along the way, they are helped by a pretty girl with kick-ass martial arts skills (Isabella Leong), a group of friendly yeti and their own army of the undead.

With China all the rage recently in real life (the Olympics, the earthquake) and reel life (Kung Fu Panda, Forbidden Kingdom), it’s no surprise that this new installment is set in the Middle Kingdom. Director Rob Cohen (Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story) is a self-professed lover of all things Chinese and has said it was his dream to make a film there.

All this should bode well, and it does to a certain extent. The “exotic” setting injects some new life into the grand but largely paint-by-number visual effects. Alas, The Mummy turns out to be another Hollywood film about Asia where the country and its people serve mainly as a foreign backdrop for the lead Caucasian characters to have their adventure. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but there is nothing in the script, credited to Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (TV’s Smallville), that hasn’t already been done better in films such as Gunga Din and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

But The Mummy’s biggest crime is its utter waste of a talented Asian cast. Never mind that you have protean veterans like Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (Infernal Affairs) reduced to a performance consisting of sneering and waving his gun. But why hire martial arts giants like Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh and not let them do what they do best? Li’s character spends most of his time as a CGI creation, and Yeoh mostly pines for her lost love. When the two do fight, it’s mostly in brief sequences that do not do them justice. This is like hiring Chopin and making him play “Chopsticks.”

If you want to see what these two can really do, check out the DVD of Tai Chi Master, the 1993 film that was released in a special collector’s edition last week. Jet Li is a monk who is betrayed by his childhood friend consumed by his lust for power, and Michelle Yeoh is the woman who stands at Li’s side in director Yuen Wo-Ping’s martial arts masterpiece.

Take any action sequence featuring Li or Yeoh from Tai Chi Master and put it up against anything from The Mummy. There’s wit and poetry and a sense of child-like awe in the former film’s set pieces — whether it’s Li preventing an already drunk Yeoh from taking another drink, or Li balancing himself on an elevated net as he confronts his childhood friend — that’s absent from the numbing CGI chaos of The Mummy.

When you have two performers like Li and Yeoh, who already are special effects in and of themselves, you shouldn’t have to bury them with all this fake stuff.

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor opens everywhere August 1.

Tai Chi Master: Special Collector’s Edition is available on DVD now.

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