When a Chinese archaeologist goes missing his sister, Jia (Li Bing Bing) joins an expedition hoping to find him. Led by rugged rescue expert Jack Ridley (Kellan Lutz) and funded by Jia's estranged family friend-turned-shifty corporate bigwig Mason (Kelsey Grammer) the team arrive at a remote desert region in China. Where they discover the mysteriously emaciated remains of local villagers save for one survivor: a traumatized waif named Yin (Eva Liu). Their investigation leads underground to a labyrinth housing not only the tomb of an ancient emperor but it turns out also a nest of freakishly large, intelligent and deadly funnel-web spiders. Who immediately decide it's snack time.
Along with The Meg, Guardians of the Tomb was the other Chinese-western (in this case Australia) co-production released in 2018 showcasing Asian superstar Li Bing Bing. In common with the higher profile and frankly more profitable giant shark movie, the film assembled an international cast. Among them sitcom legend Kelsey Grammer (reunited with Li after Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014) and playing almost the exact same kind of pantomime villain), Twilight (2008) lunk Kellan Lutz (who despite an absurdly macho entrance proves so conspicuously inept and un-heroic throughout one suspects his character was intended as a parody), former Mando-pop idol Wu Chun, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (2014) veteran Stef Dawson (whose character's sole defining trait is being unsubtly horny for Lutz's Jack Ridley until the script throws her a surprisingly noble gesture) and Aussie comedian Shane Jacobson (best known for cult comedy Kenny (2006)).
Behind its grandiose title and an ad campaign trying to promote this as a mummy movie the film emerges a rather dreary, garden variety killer spider movie. And not a particularly good one. With an effectively icky but still ill-used mix of practical and digital arachnid effects, the tone leans oddly closer to Seventies drive-in favourite Kingdom of Spiders (1977) with a lick or two lifted from The Mummy (1999. Punk rocker turned filmmaker Kimble Rendall - assistant director on blockbusters from The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and I, Robot (2004) to Ghost Rider (2007) - previously directed Cut (2000), a slasher film pairing Molly Ringwald with Kylie Minogue, and Bait (2012) about a supermarket flooded with man-eating sharks. Here he seems unable to settle on what exactly the film is meant to be, veering from heavy handed melodrama to grisly but inept gross-out gags (including a WTF ending that casually dispatches the one sympathetic character) and moments of outright camp (as when a spider splats against the camera lens).
Scripted by numbers the plot opts for a regrettably jumbled mess of faux home movie flashbacks to supply its would-be emotional spine. Yet aside from wasting an intriguing concept (the spiders are ancient genetically-engineered bio-weapons) on some very lean thrills, Guardians of the Tomb proves singularly inept at engaging the viewer in its cast of charmless stick figure characters. Li Bing Bing is an earnest presence but alas her stilted English further hobbles an already abrasive and aloof heroine. Jia's sole function is seemingly to point out the funnel-web spiders are behaving abnormally, something most viewers can discern for themselves. There is a semi-neat twist wherein after insisting Jia follow his lead, posturing he-man Jack is unmasked as an arachnophobe and forced to relinquish leadership to the newcomer who happens to be an expert on spiders. Unfortunately the film then does next to nothing with this strand. Watching the cast fumble and whine their way through spider-infested catacombs is an experience less akin to fun pulp adventure than watching some office workers on a team-building exercise trying to find their way out of an escape room. Twenty years ago this was the kind of silly romp the Hong Kong film industry would have made cheaper, pacier, way less po-faced and way more fun.