The Forbidden Kingdom
Directed by Rob Minkoff
Some people are upset over the fact the first time Jackie Chan and Jet Li meet on screen has to be a Western film with a white kid as the main character. I will admit that at first I was skeptical, especially with Michael Angarano’s more than passing resemblance to Shia LaBeouf and how much I hated Transformers. From the surface, this film looks like another example of weak Asian men needing a White Man’s giant magic rod to save the day and show the Asian woman love. The film doesn’t follow that convention, and even ends up not being a terrible film. It’s not a great film, but it could have been much, much worse. Instead, it’s a love letter to old-school kung fu films, even if it isn’t expertly executed. References to older films permeate the movie and help speak to the fans in the audience while giving newer martial arts watchers nuggets to go seek out for themselves. Jason doesn’t become a kung fu master overnight, he gets regularly beat up even though he’s training.
Jackie Chan and Jet Li have both been around for a long time, time in which any number of Chinese film companies could have made a movie with both of them. Heck, Jackie Chan even has his own production company, and still nothing with Jet Li! Maybe the whining should be redirected towards those that did nothing instead of directed at those that finally did got around to it but failed to make whatever dream movie you wanted.
References to Kung Fu films of the past, even spelled out that it will be a reference work with the opening credits design all taken from older kung fu film posters. Back when film posters were cool painted affairs, not photoshop chop-jobs that currently cover DVDs across the globe. Jason’s walls are plastered with these classic posters, and he spends his free time haunting pawn shops looking for martial art films on DVD. I’d question why he doesn’t already have copies of a few of the films he buys in the opening but then I’d be branded a bigger geek than I am, and that’s just not possible.
Supporting the two main stars are two actresses. Yifei Liu is Golden Sparrow, a direct reference to the 1960’s Golden Sparrow played by Cheng Pei Pei in Come Drink with Me and Golden Sparrow. My wife said to mention that she acted a lot by flipping her hair around, which is how some actresses do it in Hong Kong. Li Bing-bing’s Ni Chang is obviously the Bride with White Hair, Brigitte Lin’s famous role from the two films. They even spell it out by mentioning the film in the beginning. They CGI it up a bit with her hair, unfortunately making it look like a photonegative of those creepy Japanese girl movies like The Grudge and The Ring. Her archery rivals James Earl Jones’s in Conan for long distance accuracy, although he had the extra difficulty of using a snake.
Problems with the film are as sprinkled through as the old-school references. The acting of the lead bully Lupo (played by Morgan Benoit) is very over the top (probably related to his stage experience), and he has a signature move (a turn around roundhouse kick to the chest) which I found hilarious due to Jason continuing to fall for it. One of the major things when I was watching the film was that Jason’s initial actions with the bully gang could be construed as aiding them in their “murder” of the pawn shop owner (for most of the film we were unaware he wasn’t dead) and before he got sent back in time I was wondering why the film wanted us to identify with someone who should be charged with murder upon his return. Luckily, the film picks up once we hit ancient China, and it even solves the language problem by just not having it be a problem after a few minutes.
It is nice to see Collin Chou in a role that involves more than looking good while fighting Keanu Reeves. Still, his bad guy was practically a patchwork quilt of movie clichés, right down to killing one of his own troops for just giving him a report. The next time I see a film where the villain kills one of his own men I should kill the director. Are we that unable to make characters appear unlikable? Have the Jade Warlord rape a panda or something.
So the story involves young Jason shopping for DVDs only to be accosted by some rejected members of the Jets pretending to be Karate Kid bullies and forcing Jason to rob that pawn shop. The owner, Jackie Chan in old man makeup, gets shot, Jason grabs a golden staff and gets chased by the toughs who desire to shoot him dead so he won’t talk. Instead, Jason ends up being zapped to ancient China, where evil soldiers see the staff and try to remove it from him by killing him. Enter drunken monk Jackie Chan, who drunken kung fus the baddies and gives Jason a Cliff Notes version of the story of the Monkey King, his quarrel with the Jade Warlord, his turning to stone, and how the returning of the staff will revive him. Soldiers attack again and they gain a new companion, orphan female warrior Golden Sparrow. A monk later steals the golden staff, played by Jet Li, and Jackie’s chase of him results in their on-screen battle, which is the highlight and the point of the film. And it’s glorious. The rest of the film could be people having sex with dead alligators and I’d be happy.
After the fight, they realize they are on the same mission, and begin training Jason so he’ll be less useless than the dead weight he is. They are also now pursued by a bounty hunter who is the white-haired Ni Chang. The mission is to return the staff, but after crossing a desert they run into her and Jackie ends up with an arrow in the back. This will kill him unless he gets a potion of immortality from the Jade Warlord, which involves sneaking into the castle. Jet Li says to do it in a few nights when the moon is a new moon, but Jason is rash and just goes right in. He offers the staff in trade, but as the potion was promised to Ni Chang, Jason now has to fight her for the prize.
Here is a spoiler warning! Don’t read past here or else you’ll get the ending and hate yourself and even hate your dog! This review was delayed so long that now the DVD has dropped in Asia, but I wrote this after watching opening weekend. But, continuing on…
Jason gets his butt kicked, but then Jet Li, Golden Sparrow, and a bunch of monks I forgot to mention earlier show up and start a big battle. Jackie Chan gets the immortality potion and becomes recharged, while Jade Warlord spent the entire time conjuring up the fires of Mt. Doom in his fountain to toss the golden staff into, but he is foiled by Jet Li. Jet Li is trounced, Jackie Chan kills Ni Chang, and the staff gets thrown at the Monkey King statue, reviving him and revealing that Jet Li was only a duplicate of the Monkey King made of his hair. The Real Monkey King starts trouncing the Jade Warlord, but Golden Sparrow gets killed because someone had to die. So Jason holds her weapon, which is the only thing that can kill an immortal like the Jade Warlord, and the Jade Warlord is pushed into him. So he’s dead, the day is saved, and Jason can go back home. To be beat up by the bad-acting Jets. Jason finally wises up and kung fus them, and we find out Old Hop the pawn shop guy isn’t dead and was Jackie Chan’s character from ancient China. Also, some girl who looks identical to Golden Sparrow saw everything and thinks Jason is brave. I’m not sure what she saw, maybe Jason getting roundhouse kicked. Maybe Jason falling off a building. Maybe Jason getting his friend shot. Maybe Jason talking to an injured old man. Anyway, it’s enough to impress someone who would attract crowds of sexy studs wherever she dwelt so she now has feelings for some random kid who looks like he was beaten with a hammer. Oh, Hollywood!
Meh, I liked it, and make no apologies for doing so. It wasn’t perfect, but who gives a crap? So go see The Wizard of Oz–I mean, Forbidden Kingdom, because it may not be the best, but it won’t make you mad unless you expected this movie to be delivered to you by a choir of angels, be filled with 90 minutes of just Jet Li and Jackie Chan fighting, and then give you a blow job during the final act.
Rated 7/10 (I went through the desert, on a horse with no name, it felt good to be out of the rain, in the desert they don’t remember your name, because of elixir of immortality, random head monk, random assistant monk)
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