MUMMY 3: Tom Boy Yeoh Meets Tomb Boy Li
by Dr. Craig Reid
What a summer of martial arts films this has been. I?ve been an avid film watcher for 40 years. When I was living in Taiwan during the 1970s and 80s, I went to so many martial arts films. Since then, I can?t recall any season when I have been so immersed in such a great drooling ocean, drenched by many trickery twinkles of martial-arts-influenced cinematic achievements. How appropriate is it then, that the bookends of this 2008 summer era is highlighted by a two-pack of Jet Li, beginning with Jet Li vs. Jackie Chan in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM and culminating with Jet Li vs. Michelle Yeoh in THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR (aka MUMMY 3). It has been the kind of kung fu cinema summer one can only dream about. What?s more, in both films, one awakens from this dream to find truth and joy. They weren?t the nightmares brought on my false hope and hyped-up advertising. However, the big difference between FORBIDDEN KINGDOM and MUMMY 3 is MUMMY 3 is soaked in 954 special-effects shots in a budget pool of $176 million, the film will not sink or swim based solely on the Jet-Michelle match up.
Yet director Rob Cohen concedes, ?It wouldn?t be a MUMMY movie without intricate fight sequences and any sequence involving the master of wushu martial arts Jet Li?he just raises the bar. And when you add to the film Brendan Fraser?s Krav Maga training, Michelle Yeoh?s swordplay, Isabella Leong?s kung fu, Luke Ford?s martial arts-inspired street fighting (he learned Krav Maga and Jeet Kune Do for the film) and Maria Bello?s combination punches, then you have a feast for fight fans.?
From the role call above, only Brendan Fraser is back for the third time. John Hannah reprises his roll as the bumbling brother-in-law. These MUMMY adaptations were all basically inspired by the 1922 discovery of Pharaoh Imhotep?s tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Ultimately, they all evolved from the book The Mummy, written in 1827 by Jane C. Louden. Based on the unraveling of a mummy in Piccadilly (London), Louden pieced together who the mummy might have been. In contrast to Mary Shelley?s Frankenstein (1818) (and eventually all the cinematic version of creature starting with the Boris Karloff starring THE MUMMY (1932)), Louden?s mummy gave clever advice on politics and life to those who befriended him. Fraser?s mummy nemesis is not only far from friendly but is also an ancient, expert martial artist, a killing machine bent on taking over the world.
Cohen shares his lifelong interest in China with respectful resolve, ?I have a deep love of Chinese culture and am fascinated with the sweep and tumult of its 5,000-year history. Since high school, when my mother began painting Chinese watercolors as a hobby, China had occupied my imagination and reading time. I was intrigued by the Tang and the Ming dynasties with their early explorers discovering Indonesia, India, Africa and the giant ?treasure ships? that may have circumvented the world long before Magellan, and might have reached the Americas way before Columbus.?
For years Cohen had wanted to work with Li and that nearly came to pass when Li agreed to play Sinbad on another of Cohen?s dream projects, THE EIGHTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD, but it fell through. ?The idea that the Terracotta Warriors of Xian were, in fact, the mummies, really appealed to me,? Cohen enthuses. ?It was all about exploring the true history of China during two periods, 200 B.C. and 1946, in an unusual way and having a lot of fun with it. All the great elements are there from the first two MUMMY movies, but I wanted to take it in a whole new direction, away from Egypt and into Asia. It is a brand-new adventure for our heroes; spectacular, colorful and completely Asian. Jet was always the one and only choice to be the villain in this film?period.?
Cohen made several changes to the script before Yeoh finally agreed to play the part of the wizard-like ephemeral keeper of the fountain of youth. ?I was very excited about the character because she is magical,? Yeoh admits. ?In the story she meets the love of her life, but she is thwarted by the Emperor, who wants her for himself and asks her to bestow on him the secret of eternal life. She refuses to and uses her powers to curse him. It?s a wonderful role.?
Now 21, Alex O?Connell (Ford), who was rescued by his parents Rick (Fraser) and Evelyn (Bello) from the aforementioned Imhotep, is somehow tricked into awakening the 2000-year-old mummy of Emperor Han (Li), the fiercest warrior China has ever seen. He was unable to achieve world domination when he was cursed by the sorceress Zi Yuan (Yeoh) thousands of years ago. To cloak the world in a shadow of doom and destruction, the mummy must first achieve immortality by locating the fabled Shangri-la and then drink from the legendary pool of eternal life. With these knew found powers he would then be able to raise the dreaded Terracotta army that has been buried underneath the ground for millennia. Only the fighting O?Connell family stands in Han man?s way. Instead of coming right out of a comic book (ENTER THE DRAGON nod here) he is coming right out of ancient Chinese history.
Because Li was not available for the entire duration of the lengthy MUMMY 3 shoot, Cohen suggested that the script explain that the Emperor had been cursed and turned into a Terracotta Warrior. Cohen recalls, ?We had the idea that a terracotta CG character walk and talk like Jet; then, at a certain point, he comes back as the flesh-and-blood Jet, this way he?s in the film more without being in the film. Jet loved the idea and so did the studio.?
Key fights in the production include one set in the Foundation Chamber, the subterranean temple in which the Emperor attempts to raise his Terracotta Army. With ceilings formed from the bones of conquered enemies, the chamber is filled with flickering flames that line the walkway as the Emperor weaves his dark magic. In the sequence, Rick O?Connell confronts the Emperor by throwing a knife into his back. The Emperor, only slightly inconvenienced, yanks it out and attacks O?Connell with pent up rage that been growing since being cursed eons before. Writhe in fear, bravery and a bit of stupidity, O?Connell charges like someone from the Light Brigade during the famed Battle of Balaclava. You know the one, ?Cannons to the left of us, cannons to the right, into the valley of death?? except Rick is riding into the valley of mummy death.
Cohen created the notion that in the years since the last film, THE MUMMY RETURNS, Rick has become skilled in the art of Krav Maga. As veteran stunt coordinator Vic Armstrong explains, ?It is really practical street fighting consisting of short, sharp moves, a system of combat defense devised by the Czech Jews during the Second World War. They started fighting back by using a system of body motions based on instinct. Basically, you go to the problem, rather than let it come to you. It?s confidence building and, needless to say, great exercise.
?Brendan is a fantastic action actor and in preparation for this film, he really worked out hard, and he became as solid as a rock. He loves his action and knows what he is good at, so we were able to cater to that in all fights we did with him.?
Armstrong was George Lazenby's double on HER MAJESTY?S SECRET SERVICE (1969), the first ninja who to enter Blofeld's volcano in YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE (1967) and was Harrison Ford?s stunt double in the first three INDIANA JONES films. He is also known in the industry as an action sequence director that pushes the envelope. In MUMMY 3, he just went all out. ?It is just nonstop,? he says. ?It was the kind of film I was really able to sink my teeth into with all sorts of action, from large scale down to interesting chases, fights, and, of course, Jet Li?s martial arts.?
During the key Shanghai chase sequence in which the Emperor Mummy drives through Shanghai on his chariot of four horses (filmed at Shanghai Studios), the sarcophagus flies through the streets while Lin (the Macao born Isabella Wong) and Alex desperately hang on. All the time, the rest of the O?Connells closely is following on a truck loaded with fireworks. ?It really looked a lot like a combination of BEN-HUR meets STAGECOACH,? Armstrong laughingly reminisces. ?We?ve got the two young leads in the movie fighting with Yang (Anthony Wong), who?s on the front of the chariot with the Emperor. It was a huge sequence and very complicated. We had a 500-person crowd every night for about two weeks.?
The fight most fans are anxious to wrap their imagination around is the Yeoh-Li showdown, which takes place in the desolate beauty of Tian Mo desert. It is all part of that much publicized final 25 minutes of the film that separates the quasi-men from the mummy?s boys. In a blue-screen arena of 400 special-effects shots, before battles between damned souls who died building of the Great Wall and the Emperor?s Terracotta Army, Jet and Michelle will get it on. It will also be the first time ever that they have literally crossed swords and the second time that they have had to duel (TAI CHI MASTER), although this time around the results will be much more damaging and more was expected of them because after all they have now become martial arts action star living legends.
?It?s funny,? says Yeoh. ?If you looked at our shooting schedule, it said, ?The fight that the whole of Asia is waiting for.? Jet?s fight coordinator, Di Di (Yuen Woo-ping right hand man for many moons) is a longtime collaborator. He is so brilliant?we just stand there and let him weave his artistry around us. Jet and I understand each other. We are on the same beat and just doing the best we can.?
Li agrees on Yeoh?s take on things adding, ?When you find a good player to fight with you, it?s like having a good opponent at tennis. You have to be on the same level to play well. I very much enjoyed working with Michelle, and I hope to do so in the future. I?d also like to add that Rob has a very good understanding of the timing and the fast pace that is so important in a fight sequence, and he uses very interesting angles.?
Although the filmmakers have attempted to be respectful toward Chinese history, the glaring weakness between this mummy and the previous mummy is the true histories behind the mummies. The fact that one is based on reality and the other is not. Imhotep, the mummy from THE MUMMY and THE MUMMY RETURNS is based on a real man that was mummified and his tomb came with a curse warning that those that enter the tomb will suffer the consequences. As it turns out, many who entered the tomb, including the discoverers Howard Carter and Lord Carnarvon, did in fact die from mysterious deaths, thus the birth and the reality of the mummy?s curse. To Western audiences, this provided credence to the whole premise of the stories and we can equate the plausibility based on accepted notions. It was later realized that their deaths were caused by severe allergic reactions from inhaling the tomb?s air that was laced with dangerous decaying particles from moldy fruits and vegetables buried with the Pharaoh.
However, although emperor Qin Shi Huang was a real emperor and was buried with his Terracotta Warriors, he was never mummified. There is no curse associated with even the remote possibility that if his tomb were found (in 1974 and not 1946), the finders would be punished on some limbo plane. Furthermore, as has already been reported all over the web (so I?m not spoiling anything) several mythological creatures appear in the film, a three-headed gorgon and a few others, creatures that don?t exist in Chinese folklore. This created historic artistic license may fail to impress Chinese audiences and those who are aware of what, at the very least, is a Chinese dragon and not King Ghidora from a GODZILLA film. Of note, three-headed dragons exist in Bulgarian folklore.
However, as mentioned earlier, MUMMY 3 won?t sink or swim based on the Li and Yeoh?s duel. In fact, if the film does do well, chances are it will be because of Frazer?s comic timing, the yeti (which is by far the coolest sequence in the whole film) and if you can believe it Fraser?s fighting prowess. At the end of the day, all his training has been put to positive use and in actuality, the best fight scenes in the film are the ones that Fraser is involved in.
|Discuss this article online|
|The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor|
Written by Dr. Craig Reid for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM