Thoughts on The Forbidden Kingdom

Apparently, I had a lot of rage. But I’m better now. I think I can talk about The Forbidden Kingdom without feeling compelled to destroy all that is in sight. At least, so long as I save frequently.

As I’ve previously mentioned, The Forbidden Kingdom is a movie starring both Jackie Chan and Jet Li. The prospect of these two most excellent martial arts action stars in the same movie was exhilarating, but it also meant there was a lot of room for disappointment. Often, it’s best to go into these sorts of movies with low expectations — it’s always better to be pleasantly surprised. And so I had given this warning to my friends that I invited to come with me: while the movie may not be good, it might just be awesome.

Oddly enough, the movie ended up somewhere in between, for me. Ignoring the silliness inherent in all action movies (note that they are distinct from war movies), it presented a reasonably entertaining plot, some good action sequences, and some interesting characters. Most everything was well done. The only drawback is that few scenes actually really stood out — there was nothing so memorable, say, as Jackie Chan’s fight against the Axe Gang in The Legend of Drunken Master.

But I digress. What follows may be a little spoilery, so read on at your own risk.
The movie is framed by sequences set in modern-day America, where a forgettable nerdy white teenager fixated on kung fu movies gets into trouble, finds an ancient staff, and ends up whisked back in time to ancient China, where, with a bit of concentration, he finds he can magically speak Chinese. Sadly, he has not magically learned kung fu, and when people try to kill him to get the magic staff, he is rescued by Jackie Chan as Lu Yan, a traveling scholar and master of drunken boxing (among other fighting styles).

After they get away, Chan delivers a lump of exposition, explaining that the staff belongs to the Monkey King, who was tricked into giving it up by the evil Jade Warlord and subsequently turned to stone. According to prophecy, the Seeker (a.k.a. the kid whose name I don’t remember) must return the staff to the Monkey King. Once the audience understands what is going on, minions of the warlord attack again, and their escape is aided by Golden Sparrow, a beautiful and deadly young woman yearning for vengeance against the Jade Warlord.

So they set out on their quest, and the kid begins to learn kung fu. Soon they encounter Jet Li’s character, The Silent Monk, who steals the staff. Chan and Li get into a fight that is really the highlight of the movie, displaying their unique strengths in a well-choreographed fight scene, until (of course) they realize that it was all a misunderstanding, and decide to team up to fight the Jade Warlord.

(As mentioned in this review, one can’t help get the feeling that this fight scene — and perhaps the whole movie — would have been better if it were made 20 years ago. As amazing as Chan and Li are, they’re no longer spring chickens, and though the fight scene was excellent, there weren’t really any moments of “Oh my God I can’t believe a human being actually did that!”, unlike some of their older films.)

Now that Chan and Li are together, we get the inevitable training montage for the kid. This, too, is a highlight of the movie (albeit a brief one), and is perhaps one of the best training sequences ever. The movie progresses as they are chased by one very cool super villain, encounter some tragedy, and eventually confront the Jade Warlord.

The final fight is good, but perhaps loses some impact as too much is going on. You get a bunch of good guys fighting a bunch of bad guys, and while the Silent Monk, Lu Yan, and Golden Sparrow each fight a major villain, because their fights are interspersed with each other, it serves to lower the overall tension of the climactic battle. Once the Monkey King (also played by Jet Li) is freed, the outcome of the battle is effectively resolved, except for the kid ending up as the one defeating the Jade Warlord — through dumb luck, of course, rather than skill.

The kid eventually ends up back in his own time, and uses his new-found mastery of kung fu to kick ass, take names, and totally score with the hot chick played by the same actress as the hot chick he didn’t score with in ancient China. The end.

(I know I’m dumping on the kid a lot, but he — IMDB tells me it was Michael Angarano — wasn’t actually that bad. He did okay with what he had to work with, and nicely faded out of the way in scenes with Chan and Li, since that’s who everyone was there to see. In fact, the whole framing device could largely be ignored — the movie is what happens in ancient China, and the modern day stuff is irrelevant. The role of the kid who wanted to get home could have just as easily been some kid in ancient China who found the staff and got in over his head. So again, that aspect of the movie isn’t as bad as it could have been.)

So, ultimately, I rather liked the movie. It wasn’t as awesome as I’d hoped, but it was much better than I had feared it would be. It was a well-done fantasy martial arts adventure in mythic China. And it did get me thinking that, say, a buddy cop movie with Chan and Li would be awesome. Alas, if I only had the power to make it happen.