The Forbidden Kingdom

The Forbidden Kingdom


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

The Forbidden Kingdom is a warming interpretation of the myth of the Monkey King, a chance to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li in one film, and yet another version of A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court. While it has some impressive action sequences, it doesn't hang together as well as it ought, and it's weakened by its reliance on traditional tropes.

Michael Angarano is Jason Tripitikas, a Boston kid obsessed with Kung Fu, a regular visitor to a pawn shop where he picks up import DVDs. He has a friend of sorts in the owner, Hop, a heavily made-up and convincingly aged Jackie Chan. We know he's a Kung Fu fan from the start, when his dreams of the Monkey King (Jet Li) end to find him in a room covered in movie posters, with chop socky of the highest order playing on the television by his bed. In a creatively animated opening sequence, the classic posters on his walls come to stylised life, and soon we're into the action.

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Jason is drawn into a robbery, which quickly goes wrong. He's bullied by a local thug, Lupo (the debut of martial arts student Morgan Benoit). Benoit is relatively convincing as a bad guy, even with the requisite coterie of oppressed hangers on. During the course of it, he and and an ancient bronze staff fall off a roof, and we're straight into the myths of ancient China.

After a brutal assault by unnamed warriors Jason falls into the company of Lu Yan (also Jackie Chan), a master of Southern Style Drunken Kung Fu and a wine-sipping Immortal himself. The warriors are revealed as the Jade Army, servants of the Jade Warlord, a despot left in charge of the Kingdom after the benevolent Emperor disappeared for 500 years of meditation. A duel between the Monkey King and the Jade Warlord left the Monkey King trapped as a stone statue, and only the bronze staff and its nominated bearer, Jason, can restore him.

As the pair go through the traditional scrapes, they are joined by Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), a young woman sworn to vengeance who speaks of herself in the third person. She carries a jade dart in her hair with which to assassinate the Jade Warlord, and she's more sympathetic to Jason's confusion than Lu Yan. The trio are joined by a member of the order of Silent Monks (Jet Li again). The standard fight between sides that ought to be allied, which is itself a tradition, ensues. This is one of the first major sequences involving both "J and J", and it's a treat. There's all manner of wirework, comedy and character in each kick and punch. The pair clearly enjoy working together, and it's fun to watch on the screen.

That difficulty resolved, the quartet make haste for Five Elements Mountain, lair of the Jade Warlord, only to be pursued by a white haired witch raised by wolves, the deadly Ni Chang (Bingbing Li). She is hunting them, or more accurately the staff, in search of immortality. The Jade Warlord controls it, or rather the elixir that grants it. It should be obvious by now that that elixir will be important in the climactic showdown, and, indeed, it is.

The Forbidden Kingdom has been a success in the US, and a lot of that will be down to the draw of Chan and Li. They're on good form here, juggling multiple roles with some relatively subtle characterisation. Both are masters of wushu, trained from a young age in the opera schools. Michael Angarano also has a martial arts education, and so too does writer John Fusco. This isn't Fusco's first foray into film. He's currently attached to the screenplay for the forthcoming remake of Seven Samurai, and his past films include Young Guns, John Goodman vehicle and biopic The Babe, and Val Kilmer oddity Thunderheart. There are some weak points in the story that can be pretty squarely attributed to him. In particular the punishment of evildoers, a Hollywood requirement, falls largely to Kung Fu when more prosaic means might be more satisfying. Though it's fair to say that the heroes are ably rewarded, even if the sequence does feel a bit like the end of A New Hope.

Director Rob Minkoff has done well, though as with most Kung Fu films at least some sequences likely owe more to the fight teams and choreographers than the lensmen. He's no stranger to special effects either, having both Stuart Little movies and the Haunted Mansion to his credit. More importantly, he directed The Lion King, and this film shares some of its nature as a coming of age story.

Angarano is alright, he's certainly less wooden than Ralph Macchio was, and his training and combat sequences hold together better. Admittedly, with Jet Li and Jackie Chan as tutors (with no disrespect to Pat Morita), this is perhaps inevitable. However, there's the unmistakable sense that he serves as a poor man's Shia LeBouef, which isn't really a nice thing to say about anyone and even more risky when they know Kung Fu. Sadly, he's a little out of his depth, effectively serving as a window into an otherwise almost entirely foreign cast. As for his chronological displacement, he's no Whoopi Goldberg (A Knight In Camelot), nor a Martin Lawrence (Black Knight), and he doesn't stand a chance against Bruce Campbell (Army Of Darkness). Still, he makes a convincing hero, even if his training montage is sufficiently stereotypical to awaken memories of Team America: World Police.

Ultimately, that's The Forbidden Kingdom's main problem. It's a loving homage, even verging on pastiche, but while it never comes close to wasting the talents of those involved it does fall short of its potential. It's an enjoyable film, to be sure, but far less inventive than Kung Fu Panda, which itself suffers a little from having had one good idea and nowhere else to go with it. Just as it's a standard Kung Fu film with anthropomorphic animals and an all-star cast, this is a standard Kung Fu film with someone drawn through time to fulfill a prophecy and an all-star cast. Adding something to a Kung Fu movie can make it brilliant: The Magnificent Seven made a Samurai movie both fresh and familiar and there's a brilliant version of Throne Of Blood set in a Scottish Castle; for all its efforts though, The Forbidden Kingdom isn't original enough. Altered for American tastes, and with some artifical elements, despite high profile ingredients it's just chop suey; it fills, but is too bland to satisfy.

Reviewed on: 09 Jul 2008
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An American teenager's love of kung fu leads him on the path to adventure in a mythic China.
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Director: Rob Minkoff

Writer: John Fusco

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

Year: 2008

Runtime: 113 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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