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Monday 21 April 2008

Review of The Forbidden Kingdom

by Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person

Directed by Rob Minkoff

Written by John Fusco

Starring Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Yifei Liu, Collin Chou, Bingbing Li

Both: This was a lot better than we expected it to be. Not only does it blow away anything Jackie Chan's done in American films, it's actually as good as one of his middling Hong Kong films, which is high praise indeed.

(The same probably applies to Jet Li as well, but we're less familiar with his American work, much of which looks pretty dreadful.)

Lawrence Person: When I first heard that they were doing a Jackie Chan/Jet Li film, the thoughts that went through my mind in rapid succession were: 1) That sounds awesome, 2) But not as awesome as it would have been 20 years ago, and 3) Despite how awesome it sounds, I'm sure Hollywood will find some way to screw it up.

Because heretofore Hollywood has always found a way to screw up Jackie Chan films, which is a real achievement when you're working with perhaps the greatest physical actor in the history of cinema. (It's no accident that two other strong contenders, Buster Keaton and Gene Kelly, are among Chan's personal heroes, and ones to which he's paid many a sly homage.) Shanghai Knights was probably the best of the bunch (probably because Owen Wilson is a nice, laid-back foil for Chan and isn't Chris Tucker), but still wasn't a patch on Jackie's best Hong Kong work.

How bad could a Jackie Chan/Jet Li team-up be? You could have one walk up to the other, declare "You insulted my master! Prepare to die!" and then have them fight for 90 minutes straight, and it would still be awesome. But it is Hollywood, so I went into the film with a mix of hope and trepidation.

Thankfully, Hollywood has only screwed it up a little, almost all in the framing device, and even that wasn't as bad as I feared.

Howard Waldrop: Jet Li was there, and Jackie Chan was there, and you were there too… The Forbidden Kingdom, Or: The King Fu Wizard of Oz.

Let's talk about gravitas: Jackie Chan (in his drunken master Scarecrow role) doesn't have it. Jet Li (in his Zen priest Tin Woodman role) does. Natural casting.

The parallels aren't exact. The Sparrow role (Yifei Liu) isn't exactly the Cowardly Lion figure, but gets it by default. The Dorothy role (Michael Angarano) is a guy, as out of place in Middle Kingdom China as Dorothy was in Oz.

The Wicked Witch role is split between The Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) and the long-haired witch (Bingbing Li). The Wizard is the 500-year absent Jade Emperor, who's deus ex fountain of eternity. There's also a Monkey King (who works alongside the Good Guys, not the Witch).

Plot, if we must. Kung-fu-movie-crazy American kid comes across a temple bo staff in the pawnshop where he scores old kung fu DVDs. Old Chinese owner says it was left 100 years ago at the pawnshop of his grandfather; guy never showed up to claim it when his father ran it, and now he's waiting. Kid grabs a hold of it in a fight, and ends up in Middle Kingdom China, where the Jade Warlord's troops are acting like Eli Wallach's bunch in The Magnificent Seven. He meets drunken kung fu master Chan, who seems to be one of the Immortals.

The staff belongs to the Monkey King, who stood up against the Jade Warlord but is now unfortunately immobilized inside a stone statue. (The Monkey King looks mighty-like the late Richard Basehart in his Sayer-of-the-Law role in the 1977 Island of Dr. Moreau.)

The bringer-of-the-staff's coming has been foretold (natch) which makes the Jade Warlord's guys nervous. There's a fight between Chan, the kid and the troops (the Jade Warlord has an inflated payroll — they keep coming like Cylons: kill one, two take its place — not even Nazis can kill that fast).

The staff (like the witch's broom) must be returned to the Monkey King, in the 5 Element Mountain. The Jet Li character is first mistaken for a bounty hunter: he's a freelance good-deed doer priest.

There's a Karate Kid sequence with two Mr. Miyagi's, Chan and Li, and the kid gets beat up pretty good. "Wipe on — Wipe off" is replaced by pushing brush, like in 'Nam.

The long-haired witch is out for the elixir of immortality (like the Ruby Slippers) which the Jade Warlord has promised anyone who brings him the staff.

LP: Bingbing Li's deliciously evil white haired witch (naturally, her hair is as long as Rapunzel's and as malevolent as Medusa's) is one of the best things in the film, and an obvious wink to The Bride With White Hair, which gets an explicit shout-out early in the film.

Pretty much all the acting is solid. Chan and Li are old pros, and the film plays to their respective strengths. Even with all the mileage between them, their initial fight scene still crackles with superbly choreographed action (and no obvious stunt doubles). Michael Angarano, as the helpless American naïf, isn't nearly as bad as I feared in a thankless role; he does a lot more convincing job than, say, Toby Maguire would. Yifei Liu is unspeakably lovely and undeniably graceful, but her English isn't quite up to that of her costars. Collin Chou plays the evil kung fu warlord exactly as the role is written, which is exactly like every other evil kung fu warlord, which is fine; he's got the Intense Stare of Evil down pat.

HW: Needless to say, there's a Big Fight. When the dust (and lava) clear, the Dorothy character (now kung fu lean and keen) comes back home to deal with the cardboard meanies (whose names are not Hunk, Zeke and Hickory) who set things in motion with a trigger-happy botched robbery.

It ends happy.

I went expecting not much and was mildly surprised. I've seen some of the non-stop fights in the appliance warehouses in Chan's movies, and of course A Fistful of Yen. But I'm not a Shaw Bros. Devotee. But neither is this Hong Kong Light.

This has plenty of story (it worked in 1900, why shouldn't it work now?) so that won't let you down. And it does have enough over-the-top-chop-sockey work, so if you're a fan of that, it won't let you down either.

LP: In essence this is an amalgamation of several Hong Kong film genres, primarily the Supernatural Martial Arts fest, but with a fair amount of classic Chan clowning and a soupcon of old school Shaw Brothers martial arts film of the "protagonist gets ass kicked by bad guy, finds master, trains for entire film, kicks bad guy's ass" variety (all it lacked was the black and white flashback during the middle of the climatic fight to the moment in training when he finally perfects the killing blow right before using it on the bad guy). And that's fine too, since Hong Kong action films have been shamelessly stealing bits and pieces of each other since the beginning.

What's amazing is that it's a pretty good example of a Hong Kong film. The American frame is generic and stupid, but mercifully brief, and I'm assuming it was inserted as a necessary evil to secure studio funding. Once in China, writer John Fusco and director Rob Minkoff very carefully avoid all the ways Angarano's Dorothy could have screwed up the film. Just like golden age Hong Kong films, the emphasis is on the action scenes, with just the bare minimum of plot and character development necessary to connect them.

Beyond the frame, the biggest knock on the film is that the martial arts set pieces never scale the truly mind-blowing heights of the real Hong Kong classics, the ones where they climb so far over the top that they find an entirely new top to climb over. Nothing in here matches the truly insane bits from Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain or Mr. Vampire, or the helicopter/motorcycle train climax from Police Story 3: Supercop, or the pole fight in Once Upon a Time in China, or the burning pole fight in Iron Monkey. But those are unfair comparisons to some of the best films Hong Kong has to offer. (And since it's an obvious point of comparison, The Forbidden Kingdom is also better than the one overtly successful American Hong Kong film homage, Big Trouble in Little China (though it lacks the latter's goofy charm).) Even if it's only 85% pure by Hong Kong standards, that still makes it better than pretty much any American martial arts film made since... well, Kill Bill, if you count that.

And it's reasonably funny. There's one scene where Chan's character prays for rain in a desert where the film earns its PG-13...

But the most important thing is that we finally have a Hollywood-financed film that lets Jackie Chan be Jackie Chan, and Jet Li be Jet Li, without loading them down with ill-advised Hollywood crap. (It's probably no accident that, while the financing was American, the filming was done in China with an overwhelmingly Chinese cast and crew.) If any Hollywood studio types are reading this, I make you a promise: Let Jet and Jackie make more films like this and we'll flock to the box office, cash in hand.

HW: It's a kung fu time-travel movie for the whole family (well, PG-13-wise families). I didn't want my money back, which I thought was a possibility going in.

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