The Forbidden Kingdom offers the tantalizing pairing of martial arts maestros Jet Li and Jackie Chan, who have never shared the screen before. For fans of Asian martial arts cinema (and I include myself here), this is a cause to celebrate. Or, at least, it would have been a cause to celebrate had the movie worked. I don't know, folks…I'm totally in the target audience for this film, having long been a fan of both actors as well as the genre itself. But the fact is that this thing just didn't work for me, and I'm completely frustrated by that.
Michael Angarano plays Jason Tripitikas, a Boston teen obsessed with martial arts movies. He is bullied into participating in the robbery of a Chinatown pawnshop, where the ancient owner thrusts a magical staff into his hand during a scuffle. Jason is then transported back to Ancient China where a drunken kung fu master named Lu Yan (Chan) informs him of the staff's legacy. The weapon belongs to the famed Monkey King, who has been cast in stone since losing it. If Jason can find the Monkey King, rescue him from his concrete imprisonment, and give him the staff, then perhaps he will be able to return to modern times.
This being a martial arts movie, I probably don't need to say that various villains want the staff for their own evil purposes and will stop at nothing to get it. Jason is pursued by the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) and his accomplice Ni Chang (Li Bingbing). (With her flowing platinum tresses, Ni Chang is clearly an homage to the main character in Ronny Yu's classic Bride with White Hair). Helping Jason in his quest - in addition to Lu Yan - are two other warriors: Silent Monk (Li) and the young, beautiful Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei).
There is definitely some stuff in The Forbidden Kingdom that works. Seeing Jet Li and Jackie Chan together is a thrill, no matter how lame the material that surrounds them. For this genre, the pairing is nothing less than historic. Michael Angarano (Sky High) is very good as the chop socky-loving teen who finds himself living out his fantasy life, and Collin Chou brings some dimension to what could have been a flat villain. Jet Li additionally does double duty, playing the Monkey King in flashbacks, and bringing some welcome humor to his simian-themed performance. The cinematography is gorgeous, especially in a fight sequence that takes place in a cherry blossom orchard.
That said, I have two major problems with the film. The first is that the screenplay sucks. Rather than finding an interesting angle for the first-ever Chan/Li pairing, writer John Fusco (Young Guns II) marches them through an utterly routine plot that offers nothing new. In fact, there are so few actual plot developments in The Forbidden Kingdom that I often found myself struggling to pay attention as the film meandered forward. Most screenplays have a set-up, followed by adversities for the characters to face, and then a rousing finale. This script, however, plays like an extended set-up that leads to a sudden conclusion. There's no rising sense of danger, no depth to the characters, and no meaning in the finale. This is really one of the lamest martial arts screenplays in modern memory.
To be fair, films in this genre often do have lame screenplays, so I might have been able to live with that flaw were it not for the second, more fatal one. Ready? Here it is: the action scenes are dull. You read that right. Jackie Chan and Jet Li finally work together and the action scenes are the worst part of the movie. The problem with them is that they are seriously overloaded with CGI, to the point that all the fun is sucked out. The most excruciating sequence is one in which the magical staff fights a bad guy all by itself. When you pay money to see these two stars on screen, you don't want to watch a visual effects demonstration; Chan and Li should be the special effects!
Now, I know that the actors are not as young as they used to be. Chan, in particular, has endured so many injuries that he can no longer do the crazy stuff he used to. I accept that. But did every single action sequence have to include so many CGI effects? A little wirework or computer manipulation is fine. It can add to the magical quality of the action, as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or the masterful films of director Zhang Yimou (Hero) have proven. The Forbidden Kingdom is a whole different ballgame, though. The effects exaggerate the fighting so much (and often overshadow it) that it ultimately becomes a joyless exercise. The pleasure of watching two skilled martial artists demonstrating their skills gets lost beneath a mound of uninspired CGI and needlessly choppy editing.
I wanted to love this movie. I really did. And I have a feeling that I may get some hate mail from people for whom the mere Chan/Li pairing is enough to justify their time. But I'm going to call it like I see it. The Forbidden Kingdom clearly wants to pay tribute to the long and great history of Asian action cinema. Having seen a fair share of those pictures, I can only say that this one doesn't even come close to being in the same league.
( out of four)
The Forbidden Kingdom is rated PG-13 for sequences of martial arts action and some violence. The running time is 1 hour and 43 minutes.
To learn more about this film, check out AskMen.com: The Forbidden Kingdom
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