Okay, you don't seriously think Forbidden Kingdom will allow either Chan or Li to come out on top? I mean just look at the carefully constructed poster art (pictured left) in which Chan's name is higher but Li's is first, and in the yin and yang style photo in which Li is higher but Chan is first if looking from left to right (I wonder if their order is swapped in China where you read from right to left). This reminds me of the careful credits for the pairing of Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in The Towering Inferno. Anyway, if you look at the poster for Forbidden Kingdom you will realize that the film will figure out a way to keep this martial arts match up a draw. But since this is an Asian film and Asia is a country where seniority is valued, the elder Chan gets listed first in the credit roll (and he appears first in the film as well).
Forbidden Kingdom draws inspiration from the epic Chinese tale Journey to the West that involved the Monkey King and his three traveling companions. The Monkey King is a popular character having appeared in a trio of Shaw Brothers films, a pair of Stephen Chow films, and at least three anime series. (See companion viewing for the titles.)
This time around, the tale gets an American twist. Forbidden Kingdom opens in America with a white teenager obsessed with martial arts action films. (The film has a playful opening title sequence involving poster art from many of the Shaw Brothers films.) Jason (Michael Angarano) is at his favorite Chinatown pawnshop when he discovers an old staff that magically transports him back in time to ancient Chine where he must reunite the staff with its original master. The master, it turns out, is the fabled Monkey King who has been imprisoned in stone by the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). Aiding Jason on his quest is a drunken kung fu master Lu Yan (Jackie Chan); Silent Monk (Jet Li); and Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), a young girl with wicked dart throwing skills. Naturally their journey is not an easy one. As soon as the Jade Warlord learns of their intent he sends soldiers and a lethal witch, Ni Chang (Bing Bing Li), to stop them. Along the way, Lu Yan and Silent Monk attempt to train Jason in their different style of martial arts.
So how do Jackie Chan and Jet Li ending up fighting each other in this scenario that places them on the same side? Well, when they first meet, they are not sure who's side anyone is on so they have a long, entertaining but ultimately inconclusive battle that's stopped when Jason makes them realize they are fighting for the same cause. The fight, staged by veteran action choreographer Yuen Woo Ping (he did Fearless, The Matrix, Kung Fu Hustle, Iron Monkey and many more) does not rank as the best work that he, Chan or Li have done but it's energetic and still loads of fun. Yuen keeps the action fast and furious but doesn't invest it with as high a degree of inventiveness as in his Hong Kong work or his best Hollywood efforts (like The Matrix). The goal here is keep it light and lively. The action scenes tend to be fairly big, which means there's plenty of open space and not a lot of props brought into play. Innovative use of small and large spaces and the implementation of props is a signature of Hong Kong's inventive action style. But the film doesn't seem to want a no-holds barred approach to the action; instead it's like someone put ankle weights on Yuen's fight choreography to keep it mostly earth bound. There's some wirework but not a lot of jaw dropping, gravity defying stunts. People fly but not with the breathtaking extravagance of a Bride with White Hair or Chinese Ghost Story. In fact the Ni Chang character is based on the character of legend that's in The Bride with White Hair, a Hong Kong New Wave classic. But in Forbidden Kingdom, the white haired witch waits until late in the film to use her silvery locks, and she lacks the flair that Brigitte Lin had brought to the role in that 80s adaptation. The women in Forbidden Kingdom kick some butt but if this film were in true Hong Kong style, they would have kicked some serious ass.
A lovely white-haired witch but no match for Brigitte Lin (Lionsgate)
The film was directed by American Rob Minkoff, who has done The Lion King, Stuart Little and Haunted Mansion. Not exactly a stunning resume. None of those films involved any true sense of action and only dabbled in fantasy. I guess the good news is that at least Minkoff doesn't get in the way of the action. He does find the right tone for the film, which is a generally light hearted one. But unlike Hong Kong directors, Minkoff displays little facility for quicksilver changes of genre and mood. Hong Kong directors are used to mixing comedy, tragedy, romance, fantasy, and action with ease. But Minkoff isn't adept at such tonal shifts and tends to keep Forbidden Kingdom just diverting.
Writer John Fusco (his is the only name credited for the script although the film was rumored to have gone through a few re-writes) predictably pads the open, setting up Jason's friendship with the pawnshop owner, establishing some bullies to pester him, and laying the groundwork for his eventual trip back in time. There's a ridiculous moment when the bullies pull out a DVD he just bought and it's Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon. Com'on, how could a devotee of martial arts action like Jason not already have that one in his library collection?
On the road to the Monkey King (Lionsgate)
But once the film jumps back in time, Fusco delivers a good share of laughs. When Jason arrives in ancient China, he can't understand any of the people who are all speaking in Chinese. But Fusco employs a simple and amusing gimmick to fix that. When Jason complains, "I can't understand you." Lu Yan simply says very slowly in English, "That's because you're not listening." And suddenly everyone is miraculously speaking in English. Of course it would have been funnier (but less marketable) if Jason suddenly began speaking in Mandarin. Fusco also pens some good jokes and gags. Chan has an especially good time delivering one-liners. For instance, when Lu Yan is injured, a monk says that he will send a walking monk to go and get some medicine, to which Lu Yan, seemingly from his deathbed, replies, "Don't you have a running monk?" Li's Silent Monk also gets to make Lu Yan the butt of a few jokes as well. Chan and Li also act like they having fun sharing screen time in this playful manner. They are both actors with not only killer martial arts skills but also fine comedic sensibilities.
Chan returns to drunken style fighting in Forbidden Kingdom (Lionsgate)
Both Chan and Li take on dual roles in the film. Chan also plays the elderly pawnshop owner (great old make up but you can't hide Chan's distinctive nose), while Li takes on the role of Monkey King and has a grand time playing the troublemaking prankster. Yet I still think it would have been more fun if when the Monkey King finally makes his re-appearance it was Stephen Chow playing him, reprising a role that helped make him a star in A Chinese Odyssey and its sequel. Now that would have been a great gag to please the hardcore Asian film fans, and with Chow gaining more notoriety in the U.S. it might have also been commercially savvy. Now image the dilemma of who gets top billing with Chan, Li and Chow!
Jet Li returns to playing a monk in Forbidden Kingdom (Lionsgate)
The only problematic casting in Forbidden Kingdom is Angarano. He's not a bad actor; in fact he was quite good in the recent Snow Angels. But he's just not believable as a kung fu fighting white kid. He's just the latest Ralph Macchio doing his variation on The Karate Kid. This film could have been so much better with someone like the little dynamo from My Father is a Hero, Tze Miu. That was a kid that you thoroughly believed could kick some ass with or without wires There's a brief scene in Forbidden Kingdom at a monastery where we see young kids practicing their wu shu style, and for a brief moment we get a sense of what some genuinely trained youngsters could have pulled off if the film didn't require a western lead actor. Angarano tries too hard and looks too serious, so he doesn't seem at ease in the part and I just felt like laughing every time he tried to be the action hero.
There are quite a few attempts to reference the Hong Kong classics that the film is riffing on. In addition to the opening poster montage there are mentions of Bruce Lee; a character named Golden Sparrow after a role played by the legendary Cheng Pei Pei; and then having the character mention that film's title, Come Drink with Me as one of her lines. These are all nice nods to the films this one is playing off of. These are references made for the longtime Hong Kong martial arts fans, and it's a nice gesture.
Forbidden Kingdom (rated PG-13 for sequences of martial arts action and some violence) is a bit of a letdown for fans of Chan's and Li's Hong Kong action films. There's nothing here to make your jaw drop. Yet Forbidden Kingdom delivers on the entertainment. It has a genuine sense of fun that makes the whole proceeding easy to watch and enjoy. Plus the scenery and set design are often stunning. So go, enjoy, and don't think about it.
For the Monkey King on film: A Chinese Odyssey, Dragonball (not Z or GT), Monkey Magic, Saiyuki, Monkey Goes West, Princess Iron Fan, A Chinese Tall Story
Other companion viewing: The Bride with White Hair, The Matrix, Kung Fu Hustle and any of the films below
Check out our Teen Critic's review of Forbidden Kingdom.
Top ten Jackie Chan fights:
Wheels on Meals vs. Benny "The Jet" Urquidez
Drunken Master vs. Wong Jang Lee
Armour of God vs. monks and Amazon women
Police Story as he conducts a running battle through a mall
Dragons Forever fun with opera buddies Samo Hung and Yuen Biao
City Hunter vs. Gary Daniels in a fight using the video game characters from Street Fighter 2
Drunken Master 2 vs. Lau Kar Leung
Drunken Master 2 vs. Ken Lo
Police Story II vs. Benny Ko
Project A big brawls alongside Samo Hung and Yuen Biao
Top ten Jet Li fights:
Fist of Legend end fight vs. Billy Chau
Fist of Legend (in a fight of equals much like the one with Chan) vs. Yasuaki Kurata
My Father is a Hero teamed with little Tze Miu against Yu Rong Guang
Swordsman II vs. Brigitte Lin as Invincible Asia
Black Mask goofy plot but awesome fights
Fong Sai Yuk in which his character's mother even impersonates him in a fight
Tai Chi Master teaming with Michelle Yeoh
Hero vs. Donnie Yen
Once Upon A Time in China
Fearless multiple tournament style fight &