The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) / Action-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG-13 for sexual references, brief nudity and language
Running time: 126 min
Cast: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Yifei Liu, Collin Chou, Bing Bing Li
Director: Rob Minkoff
Screenplay: John Fusco
Review published May 14, 2008
A bit of a dream come true for martial arts cinema aficionados, as two heavyweights of the genre team up for the first time, Jackie Chan (Rush Hour 3, The Myth) and Jet Li (War, Fearless), despite the latter's claim of retirement from kung fu flicks just two short years ago. Beyond just the mere casting of the stars, The Forbidden Kingdom also offers wu xia fans a plethora of allusions to other famous works, such as the white-haired witch lifted from The Bride with White Hair, and the Monkey King/Monk character from the classic Chinese novel, "Journey to the West". To cap it off, the fight choreography is by Yuen Woo-ping (Unleashed, Kill Bill vol. 2), the legend widely regarded as the best in the business. If for no other reason, just to get the chance to see the best of the best do what they do best is enough justification for fans to give it a go.
The film starts in contemporary United States, where a teenager named Jason Tripitikas (Angarano, Sky High) -- his last name another allusion to "Journey to the West" -- spends his free time enjoying the finest martial arts films. His latest excursions take him to a local pawn shop run by an elderly man, Old Hop (Chan, in old guy makeup), who loves to indulge the lad with his bootleg videos. However, Jason's curiosity is piqued more by Hop's ancient artifacts, especially an ornate staff the geezer says is waiting for its rightful owner to claim it. Later, some bullies who've made Jason's life a nightmare use him as a way to knock off Hop's store, and things go sour, resulting in Hop being shot and Jason taking a nasty fall.
When Jason awakens, he finds himself smack dab in the middle of Ancient China, at least as depicted in the kung fu movies he is such a fan of. Jason happens upon Lu Yan (Chan again), a master of drunken fighting, who claims that his possession of the staff makes him the famed Seeker of its rightful owner, the immortal Monkey King (Li) who has been encased in stone by the ruthless Jade Warlord (Chou, DOA: Dead or Alive). Jason now has his mission, but no skills to defend himself. After a bit of beseeching, Lu Yan consents, and they are further assisted by a female musician with fighting skills of her own, Golden Sparrow (Liu, Love of May), who has a vendetta against the Jade Warrior, and the Silent Monk (Li again), who also vows to teach Jason the ways of the warriors.
The fighting is choreographed with the skill you'd expect from Woo-ping, though the CGI effects do heavily detract from the awe-inspiring potential of the old-school martial arts epics. They are still efficient, despite director Rob Minkoff's (The Haunted Mansion, The Lion King) unease at editing the scenes together, going for close-ups all too often, and more than a few quick cuts, which gives the semblance of speed but confuses the perspective to the point where we're not always sure how the punches and kicks are landing. It's unfortunate that it has taken so long before someone put together the two big names in martial arts, as they are not as agile and innovative as they once were at their peaks, which does mean that we're going to be treated to wire-fu, special effects, and stunt doubles. Once upon a time, we could watch a Chan or Li flick and sit in total amazement during fight scenes that everything we see is actually happening (though after multiple takes). Nowadays, we're not always sure if Chan and Li are the ones doing the fighting at times, and even when it's obvious, whether their skills have been enhanced by the tight edits and special effects technology.
Though Chan and Li are as fun to watch as you'd expect, Woo-Ping's balletic moves a marvel, and the production values high enough to give us some choice visuals, the real disappointment is that they didn't attach a skilled director in the genre to go along with them. Rob Minkoff gives it his all, which is good enough from a Hollywood perspective, but there's a certain mechanical air about the film that keeps it on the level of the mundane. John Fusco's (Hidalgo, Young Guns) script, while certainly indicative of a man who has done his research before developing his screenplay, aims strictly at a level where spotting homage is the best thing anyone who has seen their share of these films can cling to, as it is borrowing on ideas we've seen time and again. One could argue that the movie is intentionally this way, as there is an ambiguous notion that everything that occurs in the Forbidden Kingdom stems from Jason's unconscious imagination (not dissimilar to The Wizard of Oz) and remembrances of his favorite kung fu cinema staple characters. Even so, it's a good idea that has an execution not quite befitting the concepts and talent.
Nevertheless, taken as a comic book deep juvenile adventure fantasy, The Forbidden Kingdom should fit the bill for those looking for a light kung fu actioner. The uniting of screen legends doesn't prove to be legendary, but it's fun, colorful, and better than most of the Hollywood output from both stars of late. As an homage to kung fu flicks of old, it captures the reason why young men are ravenous for the escapist, eye-catching sagas the film tips its hat to.
©2008 Vince Leo