Fans of kung fu action movies have been waiting years - no, decades - for Jet Li and Jackie Chan to face off against one another, and they finally get their wish with The Forbidden Kingdom. Unfortunately, the movie is too little, too late for the aging actors, and the fact that the movie is an American production doesn't help.
Fans of the actors will generally say that Chan and Li's Chinese productions have always been better than their American ones, at least when it comes to action sequences. Hollywood, with more limitations and less willingness to commit its star actors to physically threatening stunts, has increasingly resorted to computer graphics and less elaborate fight sequences, especially for Chan. So fans must have been a little discouraged that Chan and Li would be squaring off against one another in an American-made film that, oddly enough, also stars a white teenager. Thankfully, The Forbidden Kingdom isn't a complete disaster, but it isn't the action epic that Chan and Li could have done.
Still, given that Chan is well past his prime, The Forbidden Kingdom coughs up enough action scenes to make it worth your while. Specifically, the scene where Li and Chan fight against one another - before they realize they are on the same side - is quite good. Not classic, but better than I was expecting. There are some other decent sequences as well, though some are spoiled with some silly special effects that only an American director could think of.
Unfortunately, the movie itself is a mish mash of material. While never terrible, Forbidden Kingdom never excels in any way or form. The fact that the movie is a blend of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Neverending Story doesn't help, either. I, and many other people, could have thought of much more suitable material for Chan and Li to star in, rather than a cheesy fantasy story about a magical staff and an American kid transported back in time. Throw in some pretty bad writing, and there we go. Of course, neither plot nor writing have ever being incredibly important to Jackie Chan or Jet Li movies, but as I get older and the quantity of kung fu movies expands exponentially, you really start to look for ones that stand out. The Forbidden Kingdom doesn't stand out in any way or form.
Though it's hardly Michael Angarano's fault for the writers building in an American character into a film set in ancient China, he just isn't a good fit for the movie. He doesn't have the look of an action hero - not even a wimpy one - and he never clicked for me.
The Forbidden Kingdom has its moments and it's cool to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the same movie, but there's nothing here that sets it apart from the rest. It would have been nice to see the two actors pair up in a movie with a slightly better plot and less American influence. Still, I could think of worse ways to spend an hour and a half.
Review by Robert Bell (C+)
The idea of Jackie Chan and Jet Li sharing the screen for the first time will excite many viewers. Known for an impressive roster of stunt work, audiences will surely expect a bevy of physics-defying choreographed fighting. With Forbidden Kingdom they won't be disappointed. What may be somewhat of a let down to fans of this genre is the fact that this journey is less about the meeting of these screen legends, and more about the maturation of an American kid obsessed with kung-fu movies.
Forbidden Kingdom is a slightly crappier version of The Neverending Story, with bootleg kung-fu movies substituting for old books. Where Neverending featured genuine emotion, heartache and personal growth, Forbidden settles for scatological humour, repetitive action and oversimplifications. It is the kind of film that shows shirtless men squatting under waterfalls while demure Asian women play lutes in the foreground. Some will find such images amusing, while others will find them beautiful—either response pinpoints the key audience for this movie.
Jason (Michael Angarano) is a socially inept Boston teen obsessed with kung-fu movies. He buys bootleg versions in a Chinatown pawn shop owned by a man referred to as Old Hop (Jackie Chan). When local hoodlums decide to bully Jason into gaining them entry to the pawn shop after hours, a robbery goes wrong, leaving Old Hop shot in the chest, and Jason falling off of a building holding an enchanted staff.
Mid-fall Jason is whisked away to a Chinese farming village, which is being ransacked by soldiers in servitude of the Jade warlord (Collin Chou). Captured and saved by a drunken Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), Jason learns of the staff's mystical powers, involving the Monkey King (Jet Li), and empire betrayal.
Identified as "the seeker" and thus destined to return the staff to the stone Monkey King, Jason treks across the desert accompanied by Lu Yan, as well as a vengeful orphan called Golden Sparrow (Liu YiFei), and Silent Monk (Jet Li), while being pursued by a villainess white-haired witch (Li Bing Bing) with ties to the warlord.
Kingdom is gorgeously filmed by Director of Photography Peter Pau. Impressive landscapes, framed impeccably are really the high point of this film, in addition to the well choreographed action. Art direction and production design throughout is also standout, as the sheer aesthetic of the film makes it worthy of a big screen view.
Unfortunately, the surface of things is all this film has to offer. The story itself isn't particularly original or interesting, focusing a great deal of energy on magical tchotchkes, training montage clichés, and forced mysticism. This is in addition to some groan-inducing dialogue that reaches a high point only when Jet Li suggests that a crouching tiger stance makes one look as though they're defecating.
On the other hand, direction by Rob Minkoff is decent. His main purpose is to capture the action effectively, and he does so with gusto. The scenes are appropriately taut and quick paced, without becoming unnecessarily frenetic. This leaves the audience able to enjoy these sequences without artistic distraction.
Overall, Forbidden Kingdom should please the 14-year-old boys that it is geared towards. The corny humour, decent pacing and solid action keep the film relatively engaging. It just isn't anything particularly special or new. This is bland escapist entertainment at its most adequate. However, a scene of Jet Li urinating on Jackie Chan's face should please filmgoers looking for something new. That's not something one sees every day.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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