(Review never published; written in 5/2008)
Two of the biggest kung fu stars to succeed in the United States have finally teamed up in a feature film. One might guess that this long-overdue combination of Jackie Chan and Jet Li ought to make for a thrilling filmgoing experience. Rightfully so, considering the intriguing possibilities of combining Chan’s charming camp and Li’s skilled wushu swordsmanship. Yet The Forbidden Kingdom, written by John Fusco [Young Guns (1988), Hidalgo (2004)] and directed by Rob Minkoff [The Lion King (1994), Stuart Little (1999)], falls short of quality entertainment.
The film initially sets itself up as a tribute to the genre of kung fu movies. High school-aged misfit and kung fu junkie Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) wakes up one morning to the sound of clanging steel coming from his TV. This kid lives and dreams martial arts cinema. He plasters his walls with Bruce Lee posters and makes frequent stops to the local pawn shop to pickup bootlegged movies from China and Hong Kong. He’s a little pathetic, but his nerdy existence seems to satisfy him. Of course, that idyllic state can only last so long in a movie.
One day, the neighborhood bully squad catches Jason on his way home, and, perceiving him as an easy mark, they use him to gain entry to the pawn shop. They shoot the aged owner, Old Hop (Jackie Chan), and search for his money stash. Jason arms himself with a mysterious antique staff from the back room, but lacking the confidence to use it, he books out of the building. From there, the story goes in a fantastical direction that San Francisco Chronicle’s Peter Hartlaub appropriately pointed out smacks more of The Neverending Story (1984) than Enter the Dragon (1973). Learning from what may be Old Hop’s last breaths that he must return the staff to its rightful owner, the magical artifact transports Jason through a wormhole, or something, to ancient China. There he meets the perpetually drunk Lu Yan (also Jackie Chan), the Silent Monk (Jet Li), and Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu) – the required-by-convention love interest – and begins the journey of his life, during which he learns about the value in honor, standing up for himself, respecting his instructors, etc. etc. generic moral lessons. Pretty much all of the acting feels stilted.
The moments when Minkoff tries to establish emotional connections between Jason and his new friends almost made me gag. True, no one watches kung fu movies anticipating Oscar-winning efforts from the cast, but then, most kung fu movies also do a better job of focusing audiences on their inventive fight scenes instead of dwelling on their formulaic plots. Even the music seems off. The sweeping, John Williams-esque soundtrack doesn’t gel with the extended sequences of Asian martial arts. In short, The Forbidden Kingdom is just too American to work as a tribute to kung fu movies.
This is not to say that The Forbidden Kingdom sucks outright. A couple of the fight scenes are fun, particularly the dreamlike sequence at the beginning between the Monkey King and the Jade Army. With a faceful of scruffy blonde hair to match his abundant, top-knotted ponytail, Jet Li giggles with glee as he beats down a swarm of attackers with his golden staff. The busy final fight scene is not too shabby either, what with about four planes of simultaneous action. And I suppose that, as always, Jackie Chan’s goofball demeanor is good for a few laughs.
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