The difficult task for me in enjoying (and reviewing) a martial arts film is balancing the visual awesomeness with an exposition that is often barely coherent or downright asinine. It’s amazing that the impressiveness found in these films has to be balanced by a narrative that is frequently unbearable, resulting in a rental heavy on the fast-forwarding. If I had my way, martial arts films would consist solely of the fight scenes, perhaps only broken by a few montages of smaller fight scenes.
The Forbidden Kingdom is noteworthy for the first onscreen combination of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, two hyper-fast super humans who could beat the piss out of Steven Seagal with their elbow fat. Despite being past their prime, the presence of two screen legends should’ve been something impressive, even to those of us only haphazardly interested in the genre. The problem is, even though this movie stars two ass-kicking titans, they’re treated as narrative sidekicks to — steel yourself for this — Michael Angarano, a thin white slab of dumbass. I’d be much more sympathetic if Angarano had kung fu skills worth a squirt of piss, but he doesn’t, and a few choreographed scenes that probably took the poor sod months to get down don’t mask the fact that he’s in over his head. Furthermore, The Forbidden Kingdom’s story is rooted in “Journey to the West,” a classic of Chinese literature mixing folklore, mythology, and various religious pantheons in Chinese history. Given that the film is also an homage to Wushu/Chopsocky/North vs. South martial arts films, the damn thing should’ve been an epic celebration of all things Sino. It makes no fucking sense to have a Honky McPastypants protagonist (in a “chosen one” role, no less), even considering the film’s American production and English language. Oh, right, demographic pandering.
So, Jason Tripitikas (Angarano) is a dorky guy from Southie who lusts after Bruce Lee and the Hong Kong glory years. He spends much of his time looking for Shaw Brothers bootlegs at an old guy’s (Jackie Chan) pawn shop. After a violent encounter with a bunch of ruthlessly insane dipshits (read: eventual hero fodder in an action film), Jason is launched over to mythological China-land. Jason has to return some golden staff to the Monkey King (Jet Li) so that he can defeat the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) and restore order and peace and all that crap to the land. He’s helped out by a couple of benevolent demi-humans: a wanderer (Chan again) who gets his vitality from drinking wine, an obvious wink-wink to Drunken Master, and a mysterious monk (Li again). Both endeavor to teach young Angarano the kung fu ropes, even though he’s as coordinated as a drunken mandrill.
But other than the relative malarkey of the plot, which is just mildly annoying as opposed to openly grating, The Forbidden Kingdom is a pretty good slice of mindless entertainment. Around 40% of the film consists of fight scenes, including a ridiculously long (thank God) bout between the two masters. I don’t have much of a discerning eye for martial arts, but I doubt purists will enjoy the action, which is wired, computerized, and slow-motioned into something resembling ballet more than fisticuffs, but purists haven’t been getting worked up over Chan or Li for a while now, so who cares? Everyone else, including myself, was pretty engaged, and the fairly young audience this film was geared towards should eat it up. It’s a shame these two behemoths took so long to team up, but the results are still worth watching.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic and book editor for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR, and drinks Evan Williams in the afternoon.
The Forbidden Kingdom / Phillip Stephens
Film | April 18, 2008 | Comments ()