Monday, April 28, 2008

In Theaters: The Forbidden Kingdom

Poster image from
There’s something refreshingly old-school about THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, a kung-fu adventure that, oddly, marks the first time Jackie Chan and Jet Li have shared the screen. It’s very much a tribute to the history of wire-fu extravaganzas, reaching back to the early days of the genre to produce a fun and colorful romp that’s a welcome change from the more glum martial arts epics that have become common in this decade. The ads have cunningly concealed what’s already a sore point among genre fans- namely, that the real protagonist is a white kid from New York- but this isn’t handled too badly, and even adds to the retro vibe. A kind of NEVERENDING STORY for Shaw Brothers fans, as it were.

The white kid in question is Jason (Michael Angarano, who was the lead in 2005’s SKY HIGH), a teenage kung-fu enthusiast who frequently browses a Chinatown pawn shop for the latest bootlegs. A local gang bullies him into helping them break into the shop after hours, and when the elderly shopkeeper is shot, he hands Jason an antique staff, telling him to return it to its rightful owner. Jason is chased by the hoods, falls off a building, and ends up in- well, Mythic China, the spirit-infested medieval world of so many kung fu films. Jason falls in with Lu Yan (Chan), a drunken master of kung fu who tells the boy that the staff belongs to the Monkey King, an immortal spirit imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), who now rules the land with the proverbial iron fist. The staff must be returned to the King to free him and defeat the warlord, so Jason and Lu Yan, assisted by the beautiful and vengeful Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), head towards the titular kingdom, and the fortress where the petrified Monkey King waits. There’s one problem- Jason knows no actual kung fu, unlike the Jade Army and pretty much everyone else, and when Lu Yan starts to educate him, he’s the classic slow learner who doesn’t understand the point of all these meaningless repetitive exercises (one would think he’d remember such things from the films, but then maybe he fast forwarded through those parts.) The group is completed when a mysterious monk (Jet Li) shows up wanting to learn the secrets of the staff, and he and Lu Yan decide to teach Jason together.

From the opening credits, featuring a montage of poster images from 70s kung fu epics, you can tell this is a film made by people with a deep and abiding love of the genre. Granted, I’m not sure anybody else makes martial arts movies, or at least any worth remembering, but the level of self-awareness in this particular adventure adds to the appeal. We’re meant to have a little fun with all of this, and enjoy it as a reinforcement and reconstruction of the central tropes of these films. I think what makes a successful pastiche is both the inherent enthusiasm and an understanding of what makes the genre work- we get the good parts, with most of the cruft cut out. (The early training sequences, wherein the kid still resists the messages of discipline and control that Lu Yan is trying to impart, do go on a bit, though.)

The characters are simple but strongly defined- Chan is essentially doing his “drunken master” character, Li’s enigmatic monk will be familiar to his fans (his characterization seems a little odd but is eventually explained), Golden Sparrow is the one with the personal vendetta against the bad guy, and the kid is, well, the kid. Certainly, building the whole thing around a white wanna-be kung fu master isn’t going to make Edward Said happy, and the ad campaign for this film has been unfairly deceptive, but in the end Angarano plays the part well and makes his character’s journey interesting. His lessons are the kind of psuedo-Zen wisdom that’s familiar to anyone who’s watched these films, but is still good to hear. Kung fu is described as an art, something done through intuition and the development of a clear consciousness, something that can’t be overthought or forced. It was a nice reminder for me since good writing is done in much the same way (at least before editing.) The villain has a generic lust for power, but is appropriately fearsome.

The fantasy world of the film is a vivid one, replete with elixirs of immortality, giant temples leading to the top of the world, lush jungles, and vast deserts. The sets and costumes are nicely elaborate, and the special effects are fairly convincing. The actual kung fu action doesn’t have any particular standout stunts, but serves the story. The film’s never very serious, animated instead by the playful spirit of the Monkey King himself. Chan and Li are both in superb form, and their physical and verbal sparring is quite fun.

THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM marked the first time I’d actually been to the movies in a while, and it’s the kind of spectacle you may as well see in a theater. Certainly you can afford to miss it, but it does what it does quite well, and left me with a pleasant feeling as I left. Consider it a kung-fu appetizer before the big summer movies start rolling out, and enjoy.

Written by John Fusco

Directed by Rob Minkoff

Grade: B+

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