An acquaintance of mine once developed a Naked Maria Bello Theory, that goes something like this: if Maria Bello is in a movie and appears naked, topless or in a sex scene, it is a good film; if she does none of those things, it is a bad film. This wasn't meant to be a causal relationship, but a correlative one, and though it has some exceptions (Thank You For Smoking, for one), it certainly fits e.g. A History of Violence and The Cooler versus e.g. Coyote Ugly and World Trade Center. Anyway, the point is that Maria Bello is fully clothed for the entirety of The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and lo! it is bad. And for that matter, Bello herself is quite exceptionally bad, without question the worst performance I've ever seen her give; filling in for Rachel Weisz, who skipped out of the long-delayed return of the middling action franchise, Bello is saddled not only with another performer's interpretation of her character, but also with a plummy English accent that sounds positively ear-melting from Bello's lovely Pennsylvanian lips. But enough about Maria Bello.

Tomb of the Dragon Emperor isn't just "bad", though: it's actually quite a curious beast, and worthy of some explication. Essentially, the franchise has always been an attempt at capturing some of that Indiana Jones magic for the CGI age (it has surely not ever been about remaking the Universal horror series from the 1930s and '40s, except in name), and at least for the first time, it wasn't totally unsuccessful: I'd have to admit that you're not going to get a much better cod-Raiders of the Lost Ark than 1999's The Mummy, particularly when your cod-Harrison Ford is somebody as markedly unmemorable as Brendan Fraser. It's a peerless example of a Big, Dumb, Fun Movie, and being that it's an unabashed Raiders clone, it's also by default a modernised take on the '30s adventure serials.

That's the point I wanted to get to, because Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is also, by default, a modernised take on the '30s adventure, in a weirdly specific way: it recreates, with stunning precision, the worst flaws of the genre. Before that, though, we get an opening sequence which introduces us to China, in an "ancient time" that appears to be the short-lived Qin dynasty, although the evil sorcerer-emperor involved is named Han (Jet Li). Emperor Han, having just united China and started construction on his Great Wall, wishes to become immortal, and he enlists the help of the witch Zi Juan (Michelle Yeoh) to help in that endeavor. Except, after he fucks with her, she fucks with him, turning herself immortal and turning Han and his entire army into terracotta, which theoretically means they're not technically "mummies". Maybe she just covers them in terracotta, and I missed it.

So, it's a silly opening, but this is a silly kind of movie. And I'm honestly impressed by how well that works as a fantastic riff on the actual history of Emperor Qin. But then the film hops right ahead to 1946, and the movie proper begins with as lovely a nest of illogic as you could ever hope to find. Sure, suspension of disbelief is part of movie going, but some of the things we need to suspend in the first minutes after the credits include:

-After Zi Juan turns Han and all his followers into statues, someone was still around to build a giant mausoleum in his honor.

-The discovery of this mausoleum is a major archaeological find, despite the fact that it was already found 70 years ago, and even before that its location was known to a secret society trying to protect the curse on the emperor.

-When the mausoleum is "discovered", the front door is half-excavated before someone thinks to tell the man in charge of the dig that they found the door.

-Han, who was turned into a statue with his arms raised in pain, is found standing atop a chariot in a dramatic pose.

-Richard and Evelyn O'Connell (Fraser and Bello) are clearly in their early forties, some 15 or 20 years after they were clearly in their mid thirties in the first two movies, and they have a twentysomething son, Alex (Luke Ford, obviously being groomed to take over the franchise; he is to Shia LaBeouf as Brendan Fraser is to Harrison Ford. And I am no fan of Shia LaBeouf).

I'm not being sarcastic when I say that it excites me to see a new film make the same kind of colossal tax on my logic as a B-picture from 70 years ago; but by the same token, it would have been nice if Tomb of the Dragon Emperor could have followed this up by including some of the genre's positive elements, like The Mummy did nine years ago. The new film isn't as diabolically stupid as the series' spin-off The Scorpion King was, but like that film it's all stupid, with no halfway decent action and adventure to take the edge off (you know, the Fun part of Big, Dumb, Fun). Director Rob Cohen - whose background in films like The Fast and the Furious and xXx would have promised, if anything, a still lousier movie than this - can't direct action to save his life, particularly when large parts of that action need to be composited in later (there's a fight sequence involving yetis - which, incidentally, look even worse than they did in the trailer - that could serve as a master class in how not to edit an action scene). It's a horrible, sick feeling to suggest that the director of Van Helsing would have made anything better, but Stephen Sommers proved in The Mummy and the significantly less enjoyable The Mummy Returns that he could make dodgy CGI effects work in a setpiece. Cohen calls attention to the CGI and uses virtually nothing but medium close-ups. And slow-motion, oh so much slow motion, at all times for any reason he can muster! At any rate, this film competes only with The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian for having the most inert action sequences of the summer.

Note that I have not brought up the essential question, "did the world need another Mummy movie?" Need is irrelevant. We have it whether we needed it or not. I do truly wonder what got into the water in Hollywood this summer: with this, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Incredible Hulk and The X-Files: I Want to Believe, it's been a banner year for tardy follow-ups that nobody was really waiting for. In such rarified company, it's hard to say if Tomb of the Dragon Emperor is really the most unnecessary sequel of the year, but I'm not going to hesitate in calling it the crappiest.