Director Rob Cohen is feeling the pressure. On a warm Friday afternoon in May, the xXx and The Fast and the Furious helmer is preparing to jet overseas to finish post production on August’s big budgeted action adventure, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. With roughly only two and a half months left until The Mummy 3 invades theatres, Cohen is definitely pumped that its trailer is finally making the rounds.
“Yeah, we always knew Universal was going to backload the promotion and advertising,” offers Cohen. “There was this feeling that anything done prior to Indiana Jones would be wasted. I didn’t agree with that but that was their theory. Now that Indiana Jones has opened up and made its impact, the field has opened up for us. I am very happy with the trailer. There is so much more movie than just in the trailer. I have 954 visual effects and there are about 20 in the teaser so there’s a lot more to come.”
In The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, Rick O’Connell (Brendan Fraser) is once again knee deep in trouble when his adolescent son, Alex, unwittingly releases the cursed Emperor Han (Jet Li) from his eternal prison. Awake and a little pissed off, a betrayed Han becomes determined to conqueror the world using his shape-shifting abilities, control over the elements, and the Armies of Anubis.
After defeating the malevolent Imhotep twice, Rick and company should be old pros at taking down such forces of evil but this time around, there are personal complications standing in their way.
“The family dynamic is retirement has been bad for Rick and Evie’s relationship,” reveals Cohen. “They are bored. The son feels abandoned because his parents were spies in World War II for the British. They are estranged from each other, the husband and wife are tepid, and John (Jonathan Carnahan) has been in Shanghai for years running a night club called Imhotep. Alex has become a man and since they don’t realize it, there is a very real conflict between Rick and Alex, played by Luke Ford, a newcomer I found in Australia. Through the course of putting down the formidable Jet Li, the family finds its purpose, love, and respect for each other that had been lost. Mummy 3 has an emotional story that goes at the center of it.”
From the attitude to the wardrobe to the deadly missions, it is hard to ignore the similarities between a reluctant Rick and a certain whip wielding, fedora wearing, professor of history and archeology.
“Stephen Sommers certainly knew what he was doing,” agrees Cohen about the former Mummy's director. “Indiana Jones is a hardened cynical guy with a heart of mush and Stephen created an Indiana Jones-lite, one who was a jocular guy willing to take a pie to the face, handle a gun, work in a fist fight, and handle all the requirements of an action hero. Brendan has the unique ability to take a pie to the face, let himself be in a situation where he feels overwhelmed, and then survive. This was definitely in the wheel house of Indiana Jones and always has been. It was quite conscious on Stephen’s part and now I’ve dome something different with it.”
With Yetis, three headed dragons, and reanimated corpses, there are plenty of visual effects to dazzle the senses although Cohen employed a more practical approach for an explosive eight minute sequence that he ranks as one of his proudest professional achievements.
“There isn’t any 1940’s Shanghai left so we took a basic standing set at the studios about an hour out of Shanghai and we extended it, redressed it, redesigned it, brought in 500 extras a night, and I shot a high speed chase through a period city that doesn’t exist any more,” he explains.
“It is so rich and beautiful to look at and filled with wonderful entertaining events. It is just a damn technical achievement also because it was very hard to do. I said ‘We are going to do everything in this sequence with the actors. I am going to set John on fire, Brendan is going to jump off this truck himself blah ... blah ... blah…. We are not going to be doing the James Bond thing watching a stuntman from a long way away and then cutting to some close up of an actor. We are going to figure out how they can do everything in movement.’ There was no green screen or anything. Nick Armstrong and I went to work on it and we figured out how to do it. That one scene had about 700 shots in it so it is very complex. The Emperor is a CGI character at the point, the chariots are pulled by bronze horses he has brought back to life, so there all sorts of visual effects going on.”
As expected, Rick and the Emperor ultimately slug it out but with Jet Li’s mastery over martial arts, Fraser’s character seems hopelessly outmatched.
“Well, I was clever about that,” smiles Cohen. “What I did was I didn’t have him match it; I had Rick do a different thing. I got Brendan trained in a martial arts form called Krav Maga which is the Israeli army martial arts. It is so brutal and direct that it allowed Rick to hold his own against the Emperor without it looking silly, like some guy going ‘Wahhhhh!’ It is a brutal, almost bar fighting, style so Jet beats the sh*t out of Brendan. Then Brendan gets this opening and takes over with this form but that is not how they beat the Emperor. You can’t beat Jet Li with martial arts; he has an Achilles’ heel and Rick and Alex have to figure it out.”
Cohen’s detailed blog kept him in close contact with the online community although it also left him open to early criticisms, most notably over the replacement of Rachel Weisz, the actress who embodied Evie in the previous two installments, with Maria Bello.
“My prediction is after you see this Mummy with Maria, you won’t be worrying about Rachel Weisz,” reports Cohen. “She didn’t want to do it because her agent told me she didn’t want to be the mother of a 20-year-old and she didn’t want to go to China. I said ‘Well then, tell her goodbye because we are going to China and Alex is going to be 20 or 21.’ I never met her, I never talked to her, and I was just as happy because the truth is, I wanted an Evie that was feistier, way sexier, and more of a contemporary woman. I didn’t want a damsel in distress; I wanted a two fisted heroine full of knowledge and ideas and ready to pick up a gun.
"Maria’s demeanor is unequal to Rick which is why I cast her. I gave her an English accent and dark hair and said ‘You are Evie and I want that spark and coverage.’ Maria has that in real life and it comes through in all of her acting whether it’s History of Violence, The Cooler, or Coyote Ugly. Maria is always balls-to-the-walls and now Evie is too. I think her participation in the movie brings a richness that it didn’t have before.”
That remains to be seen. In the meantime, it’s been several years since The Mummy Returns grossed over $200 million at the box office and even though he is putting his own stamp on the material by injecting an Asian flavor into it, Cohen knows exactly why this franchise has remained so engaging with moviegoers.
“Because they are fun!” he concludes. “It is the perfect summer champagne cocktail. It has visual effects, is headlined by an actor who happens to be very adept at playing a comedic action hero, and it hit at the right time. It developed around it a lot of good will because Stephen is a really good guy and his movies are really good guy movies. Once the audience had been entertained by two of them and by Brendan, I inherited a lot of that good will from Stephen’s work as well as some very high expectations.”