The summer of 2008 broke history, and rebuilt it. America suffered through a bitter presidential election on the road to a globewrecking financial crisis. In theaters, cinematic generations were rising — and falling. Superheroes, Will Smith, George Lucas, Guillermo del Toro, Emma Stone, Mike Myers, Sisterhoods and Step Brothers, Batman, and ABBA, adaptations of TV shows we still tweet about, new installments of movie franchises studios won’t stop rebooting: everything Hollywood was before, alongside everything it still is.
In our weekly column Two Thousand Late, we’ll explore the big hits and curious flops from a summer that has never really ended. Last week: The end of Will Ferrell’s golden age. Next week: Traveling Pants’ sisterhood and Pineapple Express’ brotherhood. This week: Brendan Fraser’s last mummy movie… so far.
On Aug. 8, 2008, the Beijing Olympics began with an opening ceremony for the ages. Acclaimed film director Zhang Yimou used thousands of performers and a kamillion-dollar budget to stage an operatic rendition of Chinese history. Half of the living human race tuned in — and that’s a lowball estimate, could be closer to two-thirds. Roger Ebert summed up the consensus reaction: “China is here, big time.”
It was always here, of course. But from the perspective of a Westerner — and, more specifically and more blinkered, the perspective of Hollywood — there was the feeling of an arrival throughout summer 2008. Two months pre-Olympics, Kung Fu Panda reflected the ongoing Hollywood fascination with martial arts, a sincere wuxia comedy that launched a whole four-quadrant franchise. And that franchise’s box office returns tell the tale of shifting financial realities across the past decade. The Kung Fu Panda sequels steadily earned less in the U.S., but the grosses skyrocketed in China, $26 million to $92 million to $152 million. (The latter represents an-ever-more-frequent Rubicon crossing: a Chinese box office outgrossing the domestic take.)
And then, one month before the Beijing Olympics, the biggest movie of the year/decade featured Batman making a memorably non sequitur trip to Hong Kong. But only one Hollywood blockbuster in the summer of 2008 filmed in mainland China, with a narrative exploring China’s history and mythology.
That film, unfortunately, was The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, a threequel so purposefully goofy that even discussing it in Big Picture terms seems offensive, unfair. Dragon Emperor is one of those sequels that mainly exists to highlight the perceptibly better qualities of its predecessors. With 1999’s The Mummy and 2001’s The Mummy Returns, writer-director Stephen Sommers pinpointed a jaunty, lighthearted spirit. He had the good fortune to cast effervescent Rachel Weisz, whose chipper Egyptologist remains one of the most believably smart people in any summer movie.
Sommers was just a producer on Dragon Emperor, leaving writing duties to Smallville’s Miles Millar and Alfred Gough. Weisz was gone, replaced by Maria Bello with a why-not British accent. Director Rob Cohen expelled Sommers’ throwback camp with diffident over-editing and digital effects that looked old on arrival.
The main thing you notice rewatching the movie is how completely Brendan Fraser showed up, man. This was, in hindsight, a brutal period for the actor. He got divorced in the midst of making Dragon Emperor. And based on a fascinating GQ profile this year, he was in the brutal physical shape. “By the time I did the third Mummy picture in China, I was put together with tape and ice,” Fraser said. “Screw-cap ice packs and downhill-mountain-biking pads, ’cause they’re small and light and they can fit under your clothes. I was building an exoskeleton for myself daily.” It’s a stunning image to hold in your head — the hero of The Mummy franchise, all wrapped up. You look closer at his pretty-solid stuntwork, hoping that the biking pads helped:
Little moments in his performance that shine through the slog. Fraser, exhausted from fishing, attacking trout with a revolver. Fraser, remorseful about hurling a man out of a car, apologetically hurling dollar bills in his direction.
But the most compelling person in Dragon Emperor is, well, the Emperor. Beijing-born Jet Li rose to martial arts cinema stardom in the Once Upon a Time in China franchise. In his Hollywood career, Li was usually paired opposite an English-speaking action hero: Mel Gibson, Jason Statham, two marvelous occasions with DMX. The posters for Dragon Emperor sell that idea, with Li as antagonistic equal to Fraser.
The truth is more depressing. The Dragon Emperor prologue introduces us to Li’s never-quite-named Emperor, a warlord seeking immortality. Cursed by Michelle Yeoh’s Zi Yuan, Li disappears behind unrecognizable CGI for his way-too-occasional appearances in the rest of the movie. It’s the worst idea any blockbuster has had in the digital age. Here’s a performer renowned for his brilliant physicality; let’s turn him into pixel blocks!
We learn some intriguing tidbits about this Emperor, though. He built the Great Wall. He’s buried with an army of statues — and the bodies of his concubines. The prologue establishes this man in his “long ago” time. “The country was torn by Civil War, with many kingdoms struggling for land and power,” the narrator explains. “But one King had a ruthless ambition, to make himself Emperor by the sword.” The dream comes true. “Kingdom by Kingdom, his army swept away anything in its path… the country was his. He was now Emperor of all under heaven.”
Though never explicitly stated, this Emperor is almost certainly meant to be a fictionalized (and more magical) version of Qin Shi Huang, first ruler of unified China, builder of the Great Wall, creator of the imperial terminology Huangdi (which is generally translated to “Emperor,” though it’s more complicated than that, and I apologize so much for any and all cultural misconceptions, I write about cartoon ducks for a living.)
Notable to mention, by the way, how this prologue frames the Emperor’s activities around “a mythic battle between good and evil.” Without ever quite stating who’s who, the battle lines get drawn. Li’s Emperor seeks immortality and brutal power. He executes Zi Yuan’s lover via equine dismemberment. We’re miles away from the comparably understandable stakes of the first Mummy reboot, with a titular antagonist killed for the crime of love. In the movie’s perspective, this soon-to-be-Mummy was already up to no good.
Understandable given his cosmic historical status, Qin Shi Huang appeared as a character numerous Chinese productions throughout the 2000s. Most famously, he was played by Chen Daoming in Hero, a 2002 martial arts epic directed by Zhang.
Hero was, in its time, the most expensive Chinese film ever made. It earned a lot of money in China — and even more when it finally arrived in America two years later. A nation of early torrenters caught an early, poorly subtitled version of Hero in 2003 — not me, your honor, some guys I knew.
Hero is a complicated story built on unreliable narrators, but the main narrative is straightforward. Emperor Qin Shi Huang faces down an assassin. That assassin is played by Jet Li.
Given this context, Dragon Emperor becomes a hundred thousand times more interesting. In the span of a few years, Li played one of the most famous figures in world history — and also played the guy planning that famous figure’s assassination.
It becomes even more interesting given how the films present their respective rulers. Hero ends with Li’s assassin deciding not to kill the Emperor, reasoning that his dominion will usher in greater peace. This ending — and the fact that Hero represented a massive expenditure within the more restrictive censorship of the Chinese film industry — opens the film to an easy critique as glossy government propaganda, bloody complex history reframed as triumphalism.
There are counterarguments about Hero’s meaning I won’t get into, except to say it’s a complicated film made within thematic restrictions by a director who could be subverting those restrictions or could just be putting on a hell of a show. (Any single shot of Hero makes Dragon Emperor look videotaped.) And I won’t pretend to know anything else about Qin Shi Huang beyond the most basic research; any mega-powerful historical figure looks like a benevolent demigod or a tyrant, depending on your perspective.
What’s more interesting, in hindsight, is that a few years later, Hollywood produced a film that boldly cast the nigh-mythic ruler of China as a fire-breathing corpse-bot who occasionally transforms into a dragon. If Li himself was trying to subvert the apparent meaning of Hero, I can’t imagine a better method. But Dragon Emperor was a cross-cultural co-production; the film’s last credit declares it was “Supervised by China Film Co-production Corporation.” In a piece published by Variety, Cohen explained how the co-production negotiation affected the movie. “We had to depoliticize the script,” he said, “To keep certain things as fantasy and not so historical.”
It’s funny to imagine any version of a Mummy reboot that was remotely political, and it’s possible that the whole good/evil demonization of the mythic Emperor was so ludicrous that nobody at China Film Co-Production Corporation took it seriously. Certainly, Li’s participation in the film feels more like an example of the lame options granted actors of his background in Hollywood. There’s a nearly magic moment late in Dragon Emperor when Li swordfights with Yeoh. It’s a minor reunion for the Tai Chi Master costars, filmed miserably with indifferent closeups, mistimed slow-mo, editing that seems to hide more action than it shows. And yet, it can’t help but be jolting, because these are the characters this movie is actually about, a millennia-old enmity obscured behind a lame caper about tourists visiting from abroad.
Dragon Emperor grossed around $17 million at the Chinese box office — less than Kung Fu Panda and The Forbidden Kingom, another Jet Li-starring Hollywood-China coproduction, but more than Iron Man. I’d love to know how the movie played for audiences there. The climactic battlesees the Emperor’s victims rising against him out of the Great Wall — yeesh, a veritable populist uprising, with sword zombies!
Certainly, a villain like the Dragon Emperor seems unlikely to appear in a major blockbuster today. One year after this film, a remake of Red Dawn went into production. It was supposed to be about young Americans battling an invading force of Chinese soldiers. In a lengthy postproduction, with an eye on the international box office, the filmmakers infamously swapped the Chinese flags with North Korean ones, a decision that seems more offensive the more you think about the particulars — although it becomes kind of funny when you remember two of the heroic American characters were played by Australians.
It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, this new economic incentive to not cast foreigners as national-symbolic demons. Occasionally, you spot a new timidity, even fealty, emerging in the blockbuster trade — most famously in Michael Bay’s second-worst Transformers movie, Age of Extinction, with its propagandistic plot-pointless cutaway to Beijing, a politician declaring, “The Central Government will protect Hong Kong at all costs!”
Since 2008, Chinese companies have risen in prominence as Hollywood investors, even as the Chinese moviegoing audience has generally continued to grow. Last year, Universal rebooted The Mummy franchise away from Dragon Emperor, back to Egypt (though really, inevitably, London). Tom Cruise’s Mummy was a financial disappointment, grossing only $80 million domestically. It made more in China.
Complete Summer 2008 Schedule:
May 2: Iron Man and Made of Honor
May 9: Speed Racer
May 16: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian
May 22: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of Crystal Skull
May 30: Sex and the City
June 6: Kung Fu Panda
June 13: The Happening
June 20: The Love Guru
June 27: WALL-E
July 2: Hancock
July 11: Hellboy II: The Golden Army
July 18: The Dark Knight
July 25: Step Brothers
Aug. 1: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
Aug. 6: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 and Pineapple Express
Aug. 13: Tropic Thunder
Aug. 15: Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Aug. 22: The House Bunny