Forbidden Kingdom

Jackie Chan has been trying to crack the US market for almost three decades, now. The funny-man made the best decision of his life when he threw off the shackles of “The New Bruce Lee” and took his cue from Chaplin and Keaton, and yet his multiple runs at America have met with limited success.

His latest run, starting with the watchable Rush Hour and cute Shanghai Noon–followed by the less watchable Tuxedo, Around the World in 80 Days and The Medallion–have mostly not lived up to the combination of physical comedy and light-hearted action that made his ‘80s and ’90s films so much fun.

Meanwhile, Jet Li, since his break-through performance as the frightening assassin in Lethal Weapon 4–his death at the hands of Martin and Riggs being the least believable part of an increasingly silly series–has had grim role after grim role.

Nonetheless, both have legions of fans, and hope springs eternal for each new outing. To have both in the same film is bound to produce a massive geekasm amongst the kung-fu-philes.

And dropped in the middle of this is poor Michael Angarano. The White Guy. I’m guessing the Italian guy from Brooklyn. In between praying they weren’t going to remake Karate Kid and wondering why they didn’t use an Asian kid, I did notice that he did pretty darn well. But more on that in a moment.

I particularly revile The Karate Kid, with its inaccurate portrayal of everything having to do with the martial arts scene of the ’80s and the absurdist notion that you could learn to be a good fighter by doing janitorial work for a few days. So hints of that film send off warning flags big time. (Bit maelstrom fun fact: Ralph Macchio would go from being the world’s greatest karate guy with a minimal amount of effort to the world’s greatest guitarist with a minimum of effort. We hate that guy around here.)

The Forbidden Kingdom is a mishmash of Chinese mythology done up in a sort of Indiana Jones style. There’s a lot of bloodless death, and the big baddie dies (whoops! spoiler! as if you didn’t know) a particularly gruesome way, in the manner of Temple of Doom or the closing scene of Lost Ark. At the same time, it could have been PG, because it’s all comic book level action and violence.

There were some serious overtones, such as the lead betraying his friend who looks to get killed as a result, and Golden Sparrow’s family being killed, but these are pretty common tropes in Chinese cinema, and about the level of Batman’s parents being killed. I admit to initially being surprised by some of this, hearing how family friendly it was all supposed to be, but it is. It’s just somewhat different from the modern western approach.

Heck, even The Flower, who worries about such things, didn’t get too worried. She would occasionally hug my arm but she’s the kind of girl who likes a little scare in the theater. (She’s absolutely fearless at Knott’s Scary Farm, however. Go figger.)

This is basically a road movie, a buddy movie, a revenge movie, in which a modern kid is thrown back into a mythical Chinese time and given a quest to fulfill a prophecy. Along the way, there’s fighting. Lots and lots of fighting. But the rules are pretty straightforward: Minions are dispatched quickly; heroes (and super villains) are almost never seriously hurt.

Rounding out the cast are Collin Chou (of the Matrix trilogy) as the evil Jade Emperor, the wicked beauty Bingbing Li as the witch with white hair, and the breathtaknig Yifei Liu. Really, the best thing you can say about them, is that they hold their own when working with Li and Chan. (Likewise, Li and Chan integrate well with them as a team; despite the hammy roles they play, they don’t chew up the scenery.)

On this journey, Angarano has to go from being completely ignorant of real kung-fu to being able to fight amongst the immortal masters.

How does that work? Well, the way every huge plot hole in this movie works: By not bothering to explain it, really. (Star Wars doesn’t really explain Luke Skywalker’s flying abilities, either, though some retconning in future movies does. The first one doesn’t seem to have suffered from that plot hole, though.)

The Boy nailed it really: He enjoyed it more than he thought he would because they set us up early on as to what kind of movie this is going to be exactly. And then by keeping the execution fun and lively.

Special kudos to Jet Li, here, portraying the Monkey King. He does a nice job and its good to see him smile–he has a nice smile! And while he doesn’t have Chan’s highly honed clowning ability, the two have a good dynamic.

Another nice thing about this movie is that mixed in with the CGI and the wire-fighting, we’re treated to real images of China, which has a marvelous and under-utilized (in American movies) variety of landscapes.

Finally, add to the whole mix a pitch-perfect score by Harry Gregson-Williams, and you have yourself–if not a great movie, a good time for the whole family.

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