GUARDIANS OF THE TOMB (aka 7 GUARDIANS OF THE TOMB) (2018) review

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After fighting giant robots alongside Expendable Kelsey Grammer in Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, and before fighting a giant shark alongside Expendable Jason Statham in Jon Turteltaub’s The Meg, Li Bingbing is fighting giant spiders alongside Expendables Kellan Lutz and Kelsey Grammer (again) in Kimble Rendall’s Guardians of the Tomb. The Expendable-to-Creature ratio in her career is thus higher than that of, say, Angelababy (who only fought giant aliens alongside Expendable Liam Hemsworth in Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day: Resurgence) or Huang Yi (who merely fought a giant lizard alongside Expendables Dolph Lundgren and Scott Adkins in Eric Styles’ Legendary).

And so in Guardians of the Tomb (previously known as Nest 3D or Nest: Venom of Eternity), Li plays Jia, a scientist whose brother Luke (Wu Chun) went missing on a mission to locate a rare flower whose essence could have regenerative virtues. She joins Mason Kitteridge (Kelsey Grammer), the CEO of a cosmetics corporation responsible for sending Luke on this mission, on a rescue operation at his last known location. This leads them, paramedic Ridley (Kellan Lutz) and few others deep into an underground imperial tomb infested with deadly and intelligent funnel web spiders, whose strange mutations may be linked to the fate of the Emperor buried there two thousand years ago.

Clocking in at 83 minutes, Guardians of the Tomb is a strikingly brief and perfunctory adventure. Though one might commend the concision of its set-up (after less than ten minutes of exposition and flashbacks, the central mission is already on), there’s an almost surreal blandness to its characters and stakes. Li Bingbing’s character is given no trait beyond basic resilience, and no apparent skill beyond dispensing useful information about spiders, which makes her – despite Li’s natural talent, charisma and beauty – an instantly forgettable lead. It doesn’t help that she is just not fluent enough in English to shine as an actress the way she does in Mandarin. Only one silent moment of emotion (though in a dull scene) shows a flash of the acting skill she was known for before she decided to try and break into Hollywood and accept disposable roles. The emotional stake in rescuing her little brother is non-existent, as a childhood flashback (padding out the runtime by recurring much more often than necessary) and Wu Chun’s mere minutes of screen-time can’t evoke any bond between them or any real urgency in rescuing him.

Other characters don’t fare better, starting with Kellan Lutz’ hunky paramedic, who’s given the stock emotional scar of the death of a colleague during an earthquake (a moment shown in flashes of real-life earthquake footage, somewhat in poor taste), and some very banal flirtatious tension with Li Bingbing. The two of them have all the chemistry of a rose and a protein shake. Shane Jacobson has fine delivery, but the cringe-inducing comic-relief lines he’s asked to deliver are a long string of brutal facepalms. Only Kelsey Grammer manages to inject life into his role; he’s a remarkable dramatic actor when given the chance. Needless to say, he isn’t given the chance here, but he takes his shady CEO’s bare-bones characterization (selfish and driven by greed!) and ridiculous third-act descent into madness, and makes something entertaining, rather than boring, out of it. To the film’s credit, its underground tomb is a reasonably amusing (if already seen a thousand times) set, and the CGI spiders are well-rendered and consistently creepy. The spider attacks, some quite original (as when the spiders are in the water, literally in bubbles), are solidly entertaining, though their backstory as linked to an emperor who wanted eternity, is muddled and nonsensical. And so are the banal riddles the team has to solve to open the tomb’s hidden passageways.

Long Story Short: A perfunctory horror adventure that sporadically entertains thanks to well-rendered spiders and the great Kelsey Grammer hamming it up. **

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