I went to see The Forbidden Kingdom, starring martial arts film stars Jet Li and Jackie Chan, with a couple of friends this weekend, and as I predicted, the movie fell short of expectations. I give it a 3 out of 5.
If you happen to be a diehard martial arts movie fan like myself, it’s worth checking out at bargain matinee prices. Otherwise, wait until it’s available at the rental store or at the dollar theater. Especially in today’s uncertain economic climate, with $10 movie tickets and $4 bags of popcorn, you might want to hold off and save those hard-earned dollars for this summer’s promising batch of blockbuster films (Iron Man, anyone?).
Jason Tripitikas (played by Michael Angarano) is a South Boston teenager obsessed with kung fu movies. (A nice touch, the film’s opening credits sequence is a neat little tribute to the kung fu stars of yesteryear.) He spends most of his afternoons rummaging through the import DVD bin at a local pawn shop run by a kindly old Chinese man named Hop (played by Jackie Chan, though you’d hardly recognize him). It’s there, by chance, that Jason discovers an ancient Chinese staff long ago entrusted to the old man.
Later that night, a gang of neighborhood bullies forces Jason to help them break into the old man’s shop. When the robbery attempt goes horribly wrong, Hop is fatally shot, and Jason has no choice but to flee, staff in hand; the old man’s dying wish – restore the staff to its rightful owner. After a harrowing chase, Jason finds himself on the rooftop, trapped. He falls, but instead of crashing down onto the pavement several stories below, Jason is magically whisked away by the staff… and awakens to find himself in ancient China.
There, Jason meets the drunken immortal Lu Yan (played by Jackie Chan) and learns of his true destiny. With the help of a mysterious Silent Monk (Jet Li) and a vengeance-obsessed young woman named Sparrow (Yifei Liu), Jason must restore the staff to its rightful owner – the Monkey King - imprisoned in stone 500 years ago by the evil Jade Warlord (played by Collin Chou).
First and foremost, The Forbidden Kingdom is a martial arts flick. With fight choreography by Yuen Woo-Ping (previous action choreography credits include Fearless, The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and many, many more), and starring the talents of seasoned martial arts film veterans Jackie Chan and Jet Li, the film delivers as promised, albeit with an emphasis on quantity, not quality.
After a particularly slow start, the movie picks up the pace a bit with a decent number of brief action sequences that, while not quite up to par with the very best kung fu movies, are at the very least entertaining to watch.
There are two fight scenes worth mentioning. There’s a fun special effects-laden fight between the Monkey King (played with light-hearted aplomb by Jet Li) and the Jade Warlord that’s lots of fun and shows just how far wire fu has progressed since the Matrix films.
The best fight by far takes place about midway through the film, and – you guessed it – features Jet Li and Jackie Chan going toe-to-toe.
Jet Li. Jackie Chan. Two martial arts superstars together onscreen, for the very first time. It’s a cool moment. The fight scene’s very well done and, thankfully, goes on for a decent length of time, although when it’s over, you’ll end up wishing it wasn’t. Especially since the rest of the film’s fight scenes are a bit of a letdown.
Most martial arts films save the best for last. Unfortunately, The Forbidden Kingdom‘s final battle fails to live up to the earlier Jet Li / Jackie Chan fight and will no doubt disappoint most of the hardcore martial arts movie enthusiasts. To the film’s credit, the final battle makes good use of the entire cast, good guys and bad guys alike, in what basically amounts to a giant free-for-all struggle over the Monkey King’s staff.
In case you were wondering (spoiler ahead), yes, Jason manages to save the day. No, he doesn’t use his newly acquired kung fu skills to kick ass and defeat the Jade Warlord. Well, not directly, anyway, and thank goodness for that. It would’ve been quite a stretch of the imagination for audiences to accept an average American teen with no previous martial arts training defeating a magically enhanced foe like the Jade Warlord one-on-one. Especially when you’ve got Jet Li and Jackie Chan tagging along for the final battle.
The script is sub-par, but in all fairness, the lack of a truly engaging story line isn’t going to lessen your enjoyment of the movie. The film draws heavily on elements of Chinese mythology in an attempt to liven things up a bit, but the basic story is something we’ve all seen at least a dozen times before.
There’s a clumsy bit of exposition about a third of the way through – a flashback sequence narrated by Jackie Chan (his heavily accented English, while vastly improved from his American film debut, is a bit distracting) – that could have been handled better.
The bulk of the movie takes place in ancient China with a protagonist that obviously doesn’t speak the language. The movie does offer a quick explanation (one of the film’s funnier bits) as to why the principals are able to understand one another despite the language barrier. It’s a necessary concession, having the Chinese characters able to understand and speak English, but it’s hard to keep a straight face when the film’s main baddie, the Jade Emperor, “promises” dire consequences but pronounces it “plomise” instead.
The movie’s actually pretty funny, although it’s not an outright comedy, or even an action comedy like the Rush Hour films. Jackie Chan has proven himself in the past doing comedy, and although Jet Li isn’t well known for his comedic acting ability, he does a fine job with the funny bits as well.
The Forbidden Kingdom could have been a lot worse. As it stands, it’s an entertaining little kung fu fantasy that’s worth checking out as a rental.
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