Finally, the long-awaited showdown between kung-fu movie masters Jet Li and Jackie Chan! For many lovers of the genre, that’s what Forbidden Kingdom is all about (Don’t worry, I won’t tell you who wins). Granted, it’s a pretty spectacular martial arts flick with the amazing fight-choreography of movie master Yuen Wo Ping (even fans mildly acquainted with the genre should be familiar with his name), but this movie is also a fantasy adventure in the vein of Chronicles of Narnia or Princess Bride. Featuring many characters and elements from Chinese mythology, the scenes of martial combat are wrapped in the tale of a classic quest. The main character is played by non-Chinese actor, Michael Angarano (remember him as Jack’s son on Will & Grace?), as Jason, a teenager who loves kung-fu movies and one day discovers an ancient fighting staff in a Chinatown curio shop. An altercation with some bullies (Why are there always bullies picking on our movie heroes, anyway?) leads to his being magically transported to a fairy-tale China where most people know kung-fu (and even a little magic) and immortals mess around in the affairs of humans. His quest is to return this staff to its rightful owner, and he meets a rag tag bunch along the way. Jackie Chan plays Lu Yan, a drunken warrior, and Jet Li plays a warrior monk. Not as serious as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this movie has a lot of over-the-top story elements (such as the classic Monkey King character, or a witch with white hair that can wrap around a person like a lasso) and tongue-in-cheek humour.
I’ve always been a huge fan of fantasy stories, and a lot of that comes from the Chinese folk tales that my mother read to us when I was a kid. It’s an added enjoyment for me to see these kinds of characters come to life on screen. Having also seen a number of Chinese kung-fu movies growing up, there was always a cheesiness to the way these characters and ideas got translated on the screen. Part of that was the low-budget sets and effects, so Forbidden Kingdom really overcomes that problem. The scenery is wonderful eye-candy, whether it is lush rice paddies on the side of a mountain, sweeping deserts, or misty bamboo forests everyplace looks gorgeous. Without question, the fight scenes are good. When Chan and Li go at it, the speed and acrobatics are quite amazing, not just from the actors themselves, but from the camerawork as well. Sometimes it seems contrived that everything boils down to a kung-fu battle (it’s even mentioned as the way that immortals settle disagreements), but that’s easily forgiven once the feet, fists, and blades start flying. If you’re not a fan of the fairy-tale elements, I would still recommend this movie for the fighting. The visual effects are not bad, done with today’s CGI. Everything from balls of chi energy in a person’s hand, to cataclysmic booms of power from some legendary weapons, all the effects are slick and cool-looking.
If, however, you’re looking for a well-acted, meditative character drama, I sticking with Crouching Tiger, or renting something featuring Chinese superstar Gong Li. The characters in Forbidden Kingdom are pretty broad and the acting is not exactly subtle. It might have something to do with the way fighters pose for stances as they’re about to begin battle. All the actors seem to set up an expression (wide-eyed surprise to teeth-baring fury) and hold it as if for some imaginary snapshot. Very little seems to happen in between.
I don’t like to talk about whether a movie “works” or not, because we all have different tastes. Nevertheless, I recommend this movie for a fun time, and it can definitely be enjoyed by the entire family (I went with mine) even if they aren’t all kung-fu fanatics. Hopefully non-Chinese audiences will enjoy the movie as much as we Chinese do (there’s only a bit of subtitle, most of the dialogue is in English) because I’d love to see the success of this movie lead to more of the same in the future. (4 out of 5)
What if I made Forbidden Kingdom?
I would have tried to explain why characters are speaking English. To have all the main characters speak to Jason in English even while they speak to some other characters in Chinese (with subtitles) makes no sense. This is a magical Ancient China, so if characters are going to be speaking English, I’d want to believe that it’s not really English but just that Jason can understand them speaking Chinese for some reason. Without that being fully explained just added artificiality to a movie that already expects a major suspension of disbelief.
I’ve already mentioned that the drama isn’t really great. Unfortunately part of that can be blamed on the dialogue/script. Perhaps they were trying to capture some of the style of old Hong Kong martial art films which not only had weak dialogue but lost even more in the translation. However, this one could have really benefited from a polish by someone with an ear for witty, light-hearted dialogue (Brad Bird, writer and director of Pixar movies like The Incredibles and Ratatouille would have been great; or even Aaron Ehasz and Michael Dante DiMartino who write the animated series Avatar The Last Airbender would be a perfect fit for this movie).