Hard to believe it’s taken kung fu kings Jackie Chan and Jet Li this long to join forces and make a movie. Martial arts fans have, no doubt, been itching for just this sort of matchup for years. The acrobatic artistry of Jackie Chan, the high-flying mastery of Jet Li--which will prove superior? While The Forbidden Kingdom does provide the advertised showdown, hardcore martial arts fans might have hoped for a more impressive framework for this historic head-to-head to occur in.
Starting with its generic title, The Forbidden Kingdom isn’t a film that tries terribly hard to distinguish itself. The story is clearly aimed at the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crowd. While it can’t be faulted for that (kids need movies, too), it may come as a letdown to some of the adults in the audience.
Instead of starting with the two big names in the cast, the film begins by introducing us to nerdy Boston teen Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano, who had a brief run on the sitcom “Will & Grace”). Jason loves kung fu movies and spends his days haunting the streets of Chinatown looking for bootleg DVDs. One day, Jason is forced by a gang of bullies (who look suspiciously like the bullies from The Karate Kid) to help rob one of the shops in Chinatown. The robbery goes wrong, and Jason ends up fleeing for his life. Fortunately, though, he stumbles across a magical staff that transports him back in time to feudal China.
Yes, the main character here is actually a dorky modern teenager with a magic weapon. Jackie Chan and Jet Li are only the sidekicks. Sorry to be the one to break it to you.
Back in the Middle Kingdom (the ancient designation for the Chinese Empire), Jason teams up with Lu Yan (Chan), a drunken immortal who’s on a quest to reunite the mythical Monkey King with his all-powerful, golden-banded staff. Of course, this just happens to be the staff Jason is toting around. Before long, the duo is joined by the ass-kicking Silent Monk (Jet Li) and a vengeful, lute-playing gal named Golden Sparrow (20-year-old TV actress Yifei Liu). Coincidentally, they’re all on a Lord of the Rings-style journey to the palace of the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou, Seraph from the Matrix films). Seems the evil Warlord turned the mischievous Monkey King to stone 500 years ago. Only Jason’s magical staff can restore the deity to life, freeing the kingdom from tyranny ... or something to that effect.
The story is actually a familiar one to Chinese audiences. The legend of the Monkey King--also known as Journey to the West--is one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature and has served as the basis for dozens of films and TV shows, both live-action and animated. (In 2001, Sci-Fi Channel did a mini-series version titled The Lost Empire that was almost identical to this--time travel plot and all.) Though it cribs an element or two from the original Ming Dynasty narrative, The Forbidden Kingdom is a loose adaptation at best.
Oddly enough, for a film that relies on time travel and magical weapons, The Forbidden Kingdom downplays most of its fantasy elements. There are some amazing costumes and some wild action, but a more traditional version of this story would have included pig-men, flesh-eating demons, flying witches and most likely a visit from Buddha himself. It seems like the producers were worried Western audiences would be put off by the more “exotic” elements. Audiences used to the over-the-top fantasy of Hong Kong films like Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain will find The Forbidden Kingdom decidedly tame. On the other hand, most Western viewers--raised on Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and not much else--probably won’t know what they’re missing.
The biggest setback for The Forbidden Kingdom is really that it’s written and directed by Americans (Young Guns’ John Fusco and The Lion King’s Rob Minkoff). Seems like the pairing of Asia’s two biggest stars and a story delving deep into ancient Chinese mythology might have demanded the use of some folks a little closer to the material. The film was shot in China and much of the behind-the-scenes crew was local, but the top two spots are occupied by white dudes. To their credit, Minkoff seems to know a little something about lensing clean, energetic martial arts action (unlike Brett Ratner and his choppy, lousy-looking Rush Hour films), and Fusco never exploits the time-travel elements of his story for stupid, anachronistic humor. (Jason doesn’t end up teaching the ancient Chinese peasants breakdancing or anything.)
Although they’re on the same team, we do get one major scene of Chan and Li mixing it up. It’s an entertaining throwdown, although those wishing to study technique will be hard-pressed to find much here. There’s little real martial arts skill on display. Fight scenes are all composed of high-flying wirework--the kind Li has excelled at, but Chan has generally shunned. We get to see Chan pull a little (very little) drunken fist action, but it doesn’t come close to his work on 1994’s Drunken Master II.
Purist griping aside, The Forbidden Kingdom is a fun romp, perfectly suitable for Saturday afternoon family outings. Serious Li lovers and Chan fans are advised to find continued satisfaction in their bootleg Tai Chi Master and Project A DVDs.