The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)Rated PG-13 for sequences of martial arts action and some violence.
Starring Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Collin Chou, Liu Yifei, Li Bing Bing, Michael Angarano.
LVJeff's Rating: 7/10
Photo ©Lionsgate. All rights reserved.
For the first time ever, martial arts film superstars Jackie Chan and Jet Li are in the same movie and, not by coincidence, The Forbidden Kingdom plays as an ode to them and the genre they've helped keep running. The script for the movie, written by John Fusco, is tailor-made for the pair, giving them roughly equal screen time. When they're apart, they get to indulge a bit in personas that made them famous, with Chan playing a drunken master and Li as a disciplined monk. Chan gets to be comical and Li gets to be serious, but as an added bonus for Li, he also gets to play the legendary, mischievous Chinese folk hero, the Monkey King.
Also slotted for the pair is their first encounter, which naturally leads to a grand hand-to-hand battle, choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping. Taking place roughly a third of the way in, it's a martial arts delight. Inside a stone temple, the two punch, kick, jump, and fall all over in an extended sequence that never feels too long. Perhaps it's a bit strange to say that much joy was elicited watching two heroes trying to beat the pulp out of each other, but Chan and Li are so fast and professional that one wonders why such a pairing couldn't have happened sooner. Why aren't they on their, oh, say, fifth such matchup by now? I suppose, at this time, we'll take what we can get, and we can be happy with the offering.
One might get the feeling that the rest of the movie doesn't really matter, but I think all involved have done a commendable job in making The Forbidden Kingdom entertaining. The film is a forthright valentine to all kung fu flicks -- its protagonist is actually a modern-day American teenager, Jason (Michael Angarano), who has a Tarantino-like obsession with Bruce Lee, the Shaw Brothers, and the like (part of this is illustrated through a lovely title credits sequence that pays tribute to these pioneers by going through the posters on Jason's wall). Through a series of bad luck turns, Jason somehow ends up taking a Wizard of Oz-like journey to the kind of Chinese past commonly depicted in such films.
The movie then takes every opportunity it can to make nods and winks to those old movies and the mythos that inspired them -- look for references to Cheng Pei-Pei characters, white-haired demonesses, and, of course, drunken masters and the Monkey King. One wonders, humorously, how a kung fu geek like Jason doesn't immediately recognize that the first guy who helps him is Jackie Chan. Eventually our heroic group becomes a foursome, after the first pair is joined by Li's monk and the necessary female teammate, played by Liu Yifei. Of course we'll also have an evil ruler, a revenge subplot, a long journey, and a big battle royale climax.
The film's self-consciousness admittedly makes it knowingly cheesy, and another curiosity involves the film being geared toward Western audiences, with its American protagonist and everyone speaking English (also, it's written by American Fusco and directed by American Rob Minkoff). One would think Chan and Li would spend their first time together in a Hong Kong film, but perhaps this is also a nod to their international stardom. I must imagine, though, how funny it would be to see the movie dubbed in Chinese -- for once, the mouths wouldn't match going the other way. Yes, I kid, but that's the kind of light fancy a goodhearted romp like The Forbidden Kingdom inspires.
©Jeffrey Chen, Apr. 15, 2008