Movie Review: The Forbidden Kingdom
By Matthew Huntley
May 30, 2008
The Forbidden Kingdom follows the tradition set by many other fantasy adventures: character from the modern day world transports to a different time and place and must carry out a duty before returning home. Stories like this have practically existed since cinema began and even longer in literature (The Wizard of Oz applies to both). There have even been ones all too similar to The Forbidden Kingdom in terms of its specific context. Wasn't Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3 about the Turtles time traveling to feudal Japan so they could stop an evil warlord?
Never mind Turtles 3. The Forbidden Kingdom is actually a good movie with the right balance of action, story and likable characters that make for an entertaining two hours. Some of its magic must come from our knowledge going in that it's the first time two legendary martial artists of the cinema - Jackie Chan and Jet Li - have appeared on-screen together. In their first shared scene, Chan warns Li, "Somebody could get hurt," which is like a wink at the audience that lets us know we're in for a treat. Credit to director Rob Minkoff for letting Chan and Li share the screen rather than compete for it. Minkoff and his team know fans of both talents will care more about experiencing a fun, exciting action picture than seeing the two simply fight. Their dialogue and interaction ends up being high-spirited and sort of jolly.
The plot: Jason (Michael Angarano) is an American teenager living in south Boston. He's obsessed with kung fu movies and frequents a Chinese pawnshop owned by Hop (Jackie Chan), an old, graying man who tells Jason about a sacred staff that "must be returned to its rightful owner." That rightful owner is the kooky and rebellious Monkey King (Jet Li), who was turned to stone by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) hundreds of years ago in China.
One day, Jason is bullied by a Boston street gang into stealing from Hop's store. When the old man is shot, Jason runs off with the staff, which sends him back to ancient China. The actual time where he ends up is never made clear but lucky for Jason the people he needs to communicate with all speak English. He befriends Lu Yan (also Chan), a kung fu master who's sort of an homage to Chan's own Drunken Master character (Lu's immortality depends on his drinking plenty of wine). Jason and Lu are joined by Golden Sparrow (Yifei Lu), an orphaned female warrior seeking revenge against the warlord for killing her parents, and Silent Monk (also Li), who has his own allegiance to the Monkey King.
Lu and Silent Monk become Jason's kung fu teachers and prepare him for battle as they journey to the warlord's far away kingdom. Along the way, they must do battle with the white-haired Ni Chin (Bing Bing Li), a witch seeking the magic elixir for immortality. Watch out for her whip!
As entertainment, The Forbidden Kingdom is well-rounded. It doesn't take itself too seriously nor is it completely flippant. It has enough confidence that it never resorts to goofiness or cartoon-level hijinks while its humor capitalizes on Jason's situation - an ignorant American kid uprooted to a strange land - and actually does something with it. I especially liked when Lu and Silent Monk playfully use Jason as a dummy to instruct him how to block and hit.
It helps that Angarano is a good sport and lets all this happen to him. He's an actor who looks a lot like Shia LaBeouf, but unlike LaBeouf might have, Angarano plays Jason with humility and class. Even at the end, when Jason must confront the witch and warlord by himself, he never shows signs of becoming pompous. Because Angarano shows a reverence for the material, it translates to our liking and identifying with Jason more.
Then there's the action, which has been choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-ping ("The Matrix"). He again shows he's a master of wire fighting and utilizes his sets instead of just sticking them in the background. The fight scenes contain a quiet energy and grace (the temple fight between Chan and Li is a marvel). These, coupled with Peter Pau's cinematography, which is sometimes breathtaking in the wide shots, make The Forbidden Kingdom a better than average fantasy adventure, which is saying quite a bit considering how prolific the genre is. Sure, we know exactly where the screenplay is going and have even experienced a plot like this before, but the filmmakers and cast still believe it can be thrilling, and it ends up being so.
After Fearless, Jet Li said he was no longer going to make martial arts movies, but he obviously wasn't being serious. It's not that martial arts is the only thing Li can do, but it's in the actor's blood. Good thing, too, because it would have been a shame if he wasn't in The Forbidden Kingdom with Chan. The two have now opened up a window that could mean more pairings in the future, hopefully ones even better than this. That's not to say The Forbidden Kingdom doesn't give us what we ask for, it does, and perhaps even a little more.