The Forbidden Kingdom is yet another picture in which we are meant to experience an exotic locale peopled entirely by “others” through the eyes of a Caucasian character. In this case, it’s a fantasy world cobbled together from classic Chinese literature and period martial arts movies. As the latest entry in the category of “low expectation, Asian-themed, English-language movies written and directed by respectful American creative talent,” the film is slightly above average entertainment. But I grow tired of having to lower my expectations in exchange for the pleasure of seeing talented Asian performers make an appearance on the big screen in America.
Writer John Fusco and director Rob Minkoff make fun of some of the stereotypes inherent in period martial arts pictures, while also sprinkling shout-outs into the material to demonstrate their love and knowledge of the various source materials that inspired them. Jackie Chan and Jet Li are cheerfully engaging as a drunken beggar and monk on a mission, respectively, providing most of the film’s comic and action highlights in supporting roles. That’s right — Chan and Li have both achieved Hollywood stardom, are top-billed, are no doubt top-paid, but play second fiddle to “the white kid,” Michael Angarano. We waited years for this?
At the height of their creative and physical powers in the early 90s, Chan and Li were mighty towers. Chan dominated the screen as a modern hero / comedian / stunt man extraordinaire (Police Story 3: Super Cop), while Li stood out as a tightly-coiled hero in both historical adventures and contemporary thrillers (Once Upon a Time in China, High Risk).
The two claim that they’ve talked about working together for at least 15 years, but they put things off too long. Chan just turned 54 and Li is about to turn 45; while both have far more dexterity, flexibility, and screen fighting ability than many men half their age, Chan especially is slowing down. Their first fight may excite long-time fans — just to see them finally squaring off sent a chill down my spine — but I kept on flashing back to their earlier, younger days. Oh, what that scene could have been!
Veteran choreographer Yuen Wo-ping (credited as the more IMDb friendly Wo-Ping Yuen) did a fine job of working with the men to highlight their strengths and disguise their limitations. The action choreography is solid, but familiar. Nothing pops out of the fight scenes as new or different or thrilling. It’s not horrible, just, well, average, or slightly above average.
The basic problem with the movie as a whole is that it keeps reminding you of the better pictures that inspired it. The story takes off from the idea that young Jason (Angarano) is a big fan of martial arts movies; his bedroom is covered with posters, and he keeps the films pumping through his television to the point that he dreams of the legendary Monkey King. The Monkey King is a mischievous character from the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West; he aspires to immortality and has a mighty staff whose powers change throughout his adventures.
Jason is afraid of a gang of street toughs who look suspiciously like they wandered in from a 1950s b-movie. They threaten Jason, and he becomes an unwilling accomplice as they break into a Chinatown shop owned by an elderly gent (Chan). The old man fights back and is promptly put down, but before he dies he tells Jason to return the mysterious staff in the back of his shop to its rightful owner. Jason grabs the staff and is magically transported to another land in another time.
Properly mystified, Jason soon meets up with Lu Yan (Chan again), a drunken martial arts master; Golden Sparrow (Crystal Liu Yi Fei), a young beauty with her own imposing skills; and the Silent Monk (Li), another enigmatic martial arts master. Lu Yan and the Monk spar over the staff before agreeing that Jason is the proper one to return the weapon to the Monkey King. In this world, the Monkey King has been imprisoned for 500 years by the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), an evil figure who wants the Monkey King’s staff at all costs. Helping the Jade Warlord is Ni Chang, AKA “The Bride With White Hair” (Li Bing Bing), who has her own dreams of immortality.
The latter character is borrowed from a classic 1993 movie, which was based on a novel first published in the 1950s. She’s a visually striking character, with hair that stretches to incredible lengths so it can be used as a weapon, and Jason recognizes her from the movie (the poster was hanging in his bedroom). Chan’s drunken master is an obvious reference to two movies that he made earlier in his career — Drunken Master and Drunken Master II (released in North America as The Legend of Drunken Master) — in which Chan presented his take on the legendary Wong Fei Hung, but a similar beggar/master character also appears in King Hu’s Come Drink With Me, which features a fierce female fighter called Golden Swallow. Swallow, Sparrow, homage, rip-off? Probably homage — the movie gets a shout-out, albeit an awkward one. Li’s Silent Monk could have been inspired by any number of similar stock roles in kung fu flicks.
The mixing of various legendary characters plays into the idea that Jason is imagining his entire adventure, like some extended daydream, and, indeed, the entire movie hinges on the need for him to conquer his fears in order to become an adult. But the possibility that he might be trying to resolve his own adolescent challenge is never raised. And that brings us back to wondering: why a white kid?
If the producers had dared to cast an Asian, Asian-American, or African-American, that could have opened up all kinds of interesting twists: the young Asian not acquainted with his own cultural history, the Asian-American torn between two cultures, the African-American similarly — but differently — torn. Michael Angarano was terrific last year in Black Irish and Man in the Chair, but here he looks worn out and over matched. He stays stuck in that same gear until almost the last moment of the movie. Maybe if he showed more energy, or if his character displayed more potential for growth as he grappled with suddenly being thrust into such an overwhelming environment, it would make his casting less obviously a marketing ploy.
When I first started watching contemporary Hong Kong action movies in earnest eight or nine years ago, I thought they were markedly better than what I saw coming out of Hollywood at the time. As I caught up with films from earlier in the 1990s, and explored further into the 1980s, I realized that the contemporary films I thought were so good were actually inferior to what had come before. The more I saw, the more I could put things into perspective. My perspective has been further enhanced since the Shaw Brothers catalog has become more readily available on DVD.
Sometimes I like to imagine otherwise, but I am by no means an Asian cinema expert. I still have several hundred movies on my “to watch” list, and I’m constantly reevaluating my perspective on things. If you haven’t seen many classic martial arts movies, or have only seen the more recent films made by Chan and Li, you may well enjoy The Forbidden Kingdom much more than I did.
Despite my reservations, it was good to see Li smiling and Chan having a good time, the female leads are attractive and look deadly, and Collin Chou was an appropriately wicked villain. Still, why can’t we expect more, even from something so obviously intended as mindless entertainment?