April 21, 2008

Movie Review: The Forbidden Kingdom

Being a fan of action films, kung fu films, and the thought of pitting actors against each other in mortal combat, there have been a number of actor combinations over the years that have spawned a number of conversations regarding who was "better." One of my favorites dates back to the 1980's and focused on pitting Steven Seagal against Jean Claude Van-Damme. Now, everyone knows that, in their primes, Seagal could win that with one hand tied behind his back. In more recent years, the discussions have turned towards the pairing of Jet Li and Jackie Chan, arguably the two premiere martial arts stars of the past generation. Now the argument can be settled, sort of. The Forbidden Kingdom pairs the legends in a family-friendly coming-of-age tale, which sees them being, simultaneously, the main attraction and supporting players. It is a film I have been eagerly anticipating, but have discovered that I cannot love it as much as I would have liked.

I may not love the film as I had so wanted to, but do not misconstrue that to say that I don't like the film, because I do. This movie is an absolute blast to watch. The story is interesting, the fights exhilarating, the acting is decent, there is drama, comedy, fantasy, The Forbidden Kingdom has a lot to offer. So, you may be wondering just what it is that holds the movie back from the potential greatness it had at the outset. This is where it gets a little funny, you see, what holds it back from that potential is the same thing that makes it the perfect entry into kung fu cinema. The movie is very family-friendly, yes it is PG-13 for violence, but it is largely bloodless and there is a fantasy/comical aura to the proceedings.

At the center of the movie is the Monkey King, a character from the Chinese Epic Journey to the West who has also been central to anime series Saiyuki and Dragonball Z (which has its own film in production). The Monkey King (Jet Li) was a master of the martial arts, chi magic, and possessed a magical staff. He was also opposed by the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), who was left in power by the Jade Emperor. The two battled, resulting in the Monkey King being trapped in stone. The only way to free him is to return his staff to his possession. Still with me? Good.

Jason (Michael Angarano) is an outcast growing up in South Boston. He is picked on, has few friends, and has a love for old school kung fu flicks. His love for kung fu has endeared him to an elderly Chinese shop owner named Hop (Jackie Chan), where Jason goes to buy DVDs of obscure kung fu movies. One day, Jason is forced by a group of bullies to get the old man to open up the shop late, where they proceed to rob the place. This is where Jason comes into possession of a staff. Do you see where this is going? Good.

Within minutes of getting the staff, he finds himself transported into ancient China, where the mortal and the immortal intermingle. He immediately finds himself in trouble, as the staff is recognized. Coming to his rescue is an inebriated man named Lu Yan (Chan), who informs him of the staff's origin and his newfound destiny.

So, off Jason and Lu Yan go, journeying to the distant stronghold of the Jade Warlord. They are soon joined by a young woman with a vendetta, Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), and the mysterious Silent Monk (Jet Li). It is a dangerous journey, one that builds to an explosive final showdown, which helps young Jason find the courage he needs to overcome adversity.

Yes, Jason is the main character, and his journey is one we have seen before. There is also the fact that this story, which is steeped in Chinese myth, centers on an American from Boston. This fact has caused issue among those familiar with the Journey to the West story. While it may not be ideal for the story, I understand the need. A film like this needs a way in, someone to identify with to go on the journey, plus the screenplay was written by a Westerner (John Fusco). The boy could have been any race, but he was made white, and I suspect the screenwriter purposefully chose this.

I have to wonder if it is possible that this mirrors John Fusco's youth, his initial interest in martial arts and his dreams? He is a practitioner of Shaolin Kung Fu, after all. The way the story plays out, makes me wonder if he was picked on as a child and found an escape in old kung fu movies, often dreaming of being in ancient China, being taught by the masters and going on a quest of high importance? So, as an adult he has found a way to share his youth in such a way that offers an easy way in to martial arts films. It is definitely an interesting idea. I also like the traditional elements that are peppered throughout, without an explanation, things like chi magic and Taoist scrolls. I am sure there are many that I missed, but they are there.

Now, with the plot and writing out of the way, the real main event here is the pairing of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Here you have two of the most dynamic martial artists in history. For any martial arts fans this is a near dream come true (near dream because a true dream would pair them in a genuine Hong Kong production, which is not out of the realm of possibility). Both of these men get to show what they can do, multiple times throughout the film. Highlights include the first fight with Jackie, where he shows us his famous use of Drunken Boxing, and Jet Li facing off with the Jade Warlord. There is also a wild fight during the climax involving Jackie, Sparrow (Yifei), and Ni Chang (aka Bride with White Hair, played by Bingbing Li), that involves special effects and some nifty hand to hand combat. Above all of the fights is the temple encounter, and first on-screen fight between Jackie and Jet, and it is a sight to behold. Both of them show off different styles, with plenty of quickness, energy, and excitement, not to mention allowing it to be long enough to really draw in the viewer.

I have to give a lot of credit to director Rob Minkoff, with, I am sure, a lot if input from legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping. Why? Because the fights are not edited beyond all recognition. All too often Hollywood action scenes are cut into tiny little bits where you are scarcely able to tell what is going on. In The Forbidden Kingdom, there are plenty of medium establishing shots allowing us to see what is happening. We all benefit from this, as we can see what these two legends are doing, the forms, the moves, the pure skill involved in doing what they do. There also seems to be less wire-work than I was expecting. Yes, it is still there, but there is a lot that appears to have been done sans wires.

What about the performances? They were fine. Li and Chan do pretty much what I expected. I would not consider either man to be a great actor, but they are good, and this film has them in their element. Both also play two roles, granted, they have much less screentime, they allow them to play different than what is normally expected of them. Chan's secnd role is Hop, the shop owner, he is an intriguing character with a lot of mystery surrounding him, considering his limited presence. Li doubles as the Monkey King, and I have to say that I do not recall seeing Li ever smile so much on the screen, much less play it slightly goofy. Watching him in that role was fun. Michael Angarano plays our central character, and while the story is his, he is so bland as to almost be a non-entity. His presence is weak, and he felt underwritten in the face of the mythical plot. The last member of our motley crew is played by Liu Yifei, an up and coming actress who has great screen presence and more than holds her own in the face of her legendary co-stars.

Bottomline. In the end, this movie is a lot of fun. It may not be the hard hitting, all-out fight fest that many of us had hoped for, but it is still quite enjoyable and fills a good role. This is the perfect place to start for those interested in martial arts cinema. There is a lot to be gleaned from its content, giving you plenty of things to look up in other films. Go, watch, enjoy, then go discover more!



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