Studio exec 1: Hey, Jackie Chan and Jet Li have never been in a movie together before.* We should do a movie where they team up.
Studio exec 2: That's brilliant! But the main character should be played by a white kid who can't act.
At least, I'm guessing that's how the greenlighting process for The Forbidden Kingdom must have gone. At the top of the list of missed opportunities in this movie is deciding to have two of the great martial arts movie actors of all time upstaged by a dopey American kid, Michael Angarano. This casting decision is necessitated by a classic save-the-natives plot, as in The Last Samurai, in which an earnest American has to save good Asians from bad Asians. It's offensive on any number of levels, but mostly just patently ridiculous to see a kid who couldn't act his way out of a paper bag try to save Jet Li and Jackie Chan.
Martial arts movies aren't so much a genre as a medium -- in the past few years, we've seen martial arts movie as melodrama (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), biopic (Fearless), costume drama (House of Flying Daggers), and Western (Kill Bill). The Forbidden Kingdom is a kids' movie, basically a cross between The Karate Kid and The Neverending Story, though not quite as good as either one. It's not bad for what it is, but it could have been so much more: a movie with Jet Li and Jackie Chan should be a martial arts Casablanca, and it ends up being closer to Surf Ninjas.
The main character is a kid who loves his chop socky flicks, and the movie's a bit of a mishmash: after a dream sequence, it opens in a Chinese antique store, familiar from movies from Gremlins to Big Trouble in Little China, run by Jackie Chan in old-age makeup. Some time after an early look at the video box for The Bride With the White Hair, we meet one of the movie's main villains, a beautiful witch with white hair she uses as a whip. Jackie Chan's first fight scene is in the drunken boxing style, recalling his famous role in The Legend of Drunken Master. Both Li and Chan play two different characters, Chan as a drunken scholar and as the store owner who sends the boy on his quest, and Li both as a monk and as the mythical hero the boy must save.
There's a lot of plot in the movie, mostly in lengthy narrated exposition scenes -- there's a magical staff which transports the kid from South Boston to medieval China, an army of evil English-speaking immortals who want it back, an immortal emperor who can help the kid get home, a pretty orphan who wants to avenge her parents' death... well, basically, everyone who fights Li and Chan is bad, and everyone who helps them is good.
The boy eventually learns how to fight -- the lack of a great training sequence is another missed opportunity -- and the beautiful orphan has a few moves of her own. Fortunately, their love story is left mostly undeveloped, as their lack of chemistry rivals that of Hayden Christiansen and Natalie Portman in the Star Wars prequels. And while the orphan and the boy do pitch in on the fight scenes, the camera wisely keeps most of its attention on Li and Chan, the real stars of the show.
The cinematography oscillates from gorgeous to indifferent, as the frequently greenscreened backgrounds occasionally stun and occasionally bore. Cinematographer Peter Pau, who also worked with martial arts choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping on Crouching Tiger, does a good job of capturing the fight scenes, but seems to lose interest on some of the panoramas. Far worse is David Buckley's score, which is sweeping, insistent, and thuddingly mediocre, and really should have been done by a Chinese composer like Tan Dun (who was behind the brilliant scores for Hero and also Crouching Tiger).
The script, by Hidalgo scribe John Fusco, is similarly banal. Chinese folk mythology is a rich tradition to mine, but not when you give the main villain lines like, "Did you think you had a chance? I don't think so," or have the orphan talk about herself in third person for no apparent reason. The script's problems are exacerbated by some uncomfortably stiff line readings by a mostly Chinese cast who first speak Mandarin when we meet them, but then unaccountably switch to flat, accented English.
Those shortcomings aside, however, what's most important is the Jet Li/Jackie Chan fight that has been promised by every movie poster for the past months and fantasized about in every video store for the past 20 years. And their brawl, in a Buddhist temple with stone statues that get smashed in the fracas, is well worth seeing, even if the stars, now 43 and 54, respectively, are no longer in their primes athletically or onscreen. Still, it's eye-popping. Much of it takes place as the two are both holding onto the magical staff, beating each other with their other three limbs as they dance and kick and jump and run.
Most of the rest of the major action scenes are either fought against scores of attacking enemies, or are simulcast, so that we watch one protagonist locked in battle for a minute or two, and then switch to another, so that we don't miss anything. The pyrotechnics are impressive, though in these scenes a little magic and high-wire flying goes a long way.
Simply seeing Li and Chan onscreen together is a pleasure, the sort of easy happiness that is fully expected but nonetheless rewarding, like watching the coffee shop scene from Heat a 200th time just to see Al Pacino and Robert De Niro enjoying each other's company. The charisma of Jet Li's fist is such that when he's punching someone, it's almost impossible not to be transfixed. But while his fist is agreeably diverting, particularly on the big screen, this is far from his best movie. Feel free to see the movie if you want, but after you leave the theater, be sure to rent Fist of Legend, Once Upon a Time in China, or Fearless. You'll thank me in the morning.
* The reason why Jackie Chan and Jet Li have never been in a movie before? According to Richard Meyers, in his commentary to Once Upon a Time in China, the feud started in a movie called High Risk, in which Jackie Chan was supposed to star with Jet Li, but which ended up featuring Li and an actor named Jacky Cheung essentially parodying Chan. As a result of that movie, Chan never worked with Li, until Forbidden Kingdom. back to top