Judge Gordon Sullivan's changing video stores. He wants one that has golden staffs.
The path is unsafe. The place is unknown. The journey is unbelievable.
The moment fans have been clamoring for is finally here: Jet Li and Jackie Chan trading blows in the same feature film. It's amazing it took this long. Both actors have enjoyed tremendous fame in their home country, and both have been making massive amounts of cash for Hollywood for over a decade. For their first outing together, the pair star in an adaptation of the Chinese epic Journey to the West. For what it is—a Western adaptation of a Chinese classic—the film is not bad. But fans who've waited decades for this matchup might be a little disappointed.
Facts of the Case
Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano, Sky High) is your average youth from Boston who's obsessed with kung fu movies. His main supplier is a shop in Chinatown. While looking around one day, he discovers a staff that's been in the shop three generations, waiting to be returned to its rightful owner. During an attempted robbery, Jason attempts to defend the store and its owner, but becomes transported to ancient China. There, he encounters the scholar-immortal Lu Yan (Jackie Chan, Rush Hour). Lu Yan recognizes Jason's staff and tells him they must journey to return the staff to its rightful owner, the Monkey King. Only when the Monkey King is awakened can the cruel reign of the Jade Warlord end. Along the way Jason will receive help from a monk (Jet Li, Unleashed) and a girl called Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu).
Enjoyment of Forbidden Kingdom will be inversely proportional to expectation. If a pairing of Jet Li and Jackie Chan makes you think of Wong Fei-Hung (from Once Upon a Time in China) versus Wong Fei-Hung (from Drunken Master), then you're in for a disappointment. If, on the other hand, you thought of Wah Sing Ku (from Lethal Weapon 4) versus Chief Inspector Lee (from Rush Hour), you're more likely to enjoy Forbidden Kingdom.
The difference comes down to the styles of filmmaking prevalent in America and China (or Hong Kong). In their Hong Kong heyday both stars made films that challenged them as martial artists, actors, and stuntmen. The whole industry had a kind of "get it done" attitude that led to some amazing (and amazingly dangerous) stunts and fight choreography. With the transition to American filmmaking came bigger budgets, but also a bigger emphasis on safety and convention. I'm not trying to dismiss either Chan's or Li's work since they've come to Hollywood; however, I think it's important to point out that there's a pretty drastic difference in style between the two industries.
All this has a significant impact on The Forbidden Kingdom. As a Western adaptation of a Chinese epic, the film feels relentlessly tame. I'm not familiar with the original tale of the Monkey King, but I can't help but feel like the story for this film has been somehow sanitized. Also, the introduction of a white "hero" to the story smacks of condescension, like pairing Jackie Chan and Jet Li wasn't enough to get people into the seats. Again, this isn't a horrible thing if you're used to more Americanized martial arts films, but if you cut your teeth on Chinese adaptations of Chinese stories, Forbidden Kingdom is likely to leave you a little cold.
Obviously Chan and Li are excellent in their roles. In fact, Jet Li deserves special kudos for taking on a more comedic role. It was actually hard to recognize him during parts of the film because he was smiling, something he does so rarely in American movies. I was expecting Michael Angarano to be the film's weak link. Surprisingly, he holds his own. He doesn't try too hard to steal scenes from the other actors, he keeps his comedy low-key, and he's surprisingly believable during the fight scenes. Yifei Liu is another actor to watch. She has the looks and the action chops to go far in Hollywood.
With that said, successful fight choreography is going to be at the heart of any martial arts film. Yuen Woo-Ping (of Matrix fame to most viewers) does not disappoint. Although this is a fantasy film (which means quite a bit of wire-fu), Yuen keeps the fights more realistic than some fantasy epics. That's really how this film needs to be judged. It's not a gritty, street-fighting Kung Fu movie. Instead, there's lots of interesting weapons (including human hair), outsize sets (the better to destroy), and graceful movements (instead of the kind of "crunch" that more realistic movies serve up). I especially enjoyed the first fight on a mountaintop. It looked a bit cheesy (with the fakest rocks I've seen in a movie of this budget), but it set the slightly fantastic tone of the film well.
This 2-Disc Special Edition has a lot to offer fans. The 2.40:1 anamorphic transfer looks as good as you'd expect of a recent film. I was especially impressed with how well the special effects blended into the look of the film, with no "oh that's obviously blue-screen" moments. The audio does well with the film's score and dialogue, presenting some good bottom end during the fight scenes.
The extras are surprisingly extensive for a single disc. There's a commentary with the director and writer, where they share production details and their thoughts on the film. They're obviously very respectful of the martial arts tradition in film, which is a welcome change. There are also five featurettes that cover everything from the involvement of Jackie Chan and Jet Li to the historical role of the eight immortals in Chinese literature. There also some deleted scenes, and a blooper reel that contains some funny moments. Finally, the second disc contains a digital copy of the movie. Lame.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The movie is rated PG-13, for martial arts action and violence. I didn't find any of the action particularly brutal, so while the film may not be appropriate for all ages, this film is probably closer to a PG than a PG-13 film.
Between stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li, choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, and cinematographer Peter Pau, Forbidden Kingdom should have been a great martial arts epic. Instead, it's a fairly entertaining, but ultimately tame, adaptation of a Chinese classic. Those expecting some good martial arts and a decent story will probably come away from the film satisfied. Those looking for the ultimate battle between Jet Li and Jackie Chan are going to have to wait for another movie. In either case, this Special Edition of the film does an excellent job presenting the feature while providing plenty of context in the extras.
Considering the people involved, Forbidden Kingdom is only guilty of being good instead of great.
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