To Hong Kong action fans, the concept of seeing Jackie Chan and Jet Li appear in a one-on-one fight sequence – to say nothing of an entire FILM – together has always come with a set of hypothetical questions, first and foremost being “what sort of film?” The high-concept comedy stunt-spectaculars that Chan is the king of? The harder-edged action-thrillers where Li more often finds himself? The old-school throwbacks where both have staked solid ground? The martial-arts genre is surprisingly diverse. One thing that can be certain, “American-Produced Family Film Where They Co-Star Opposite a Time-Displaced Teenaged Kid” was never at the top of the list. But, here we are, and THIS is the film that bring’s us Kung-Fu cinema’s most anticipated matchup since Bruce Lee met Chuck Norris in “Return of The Dragon.”
Now, it’s not so much that either man oughtn’t be making movies for children. Chan’s ouvre tends to play family-friendly as a rule, and Li has done films acting opposite kids before (though few Westerners would call “New Legend of Shaolin” a family flick, trust me.) No, the concern – at least among those serious enough about such things to be concerned – was that two living legends of Chinese action cinema would have their historic clash in yet another weak, watered-down Western imitation (or worse, PARODY) of their native genre.
It brings me no small measure of satisfaction to be able to report that THIS concern, at least, is essentially unfounded: If anything, “The Forbidden Kingdom” may be TOO Chinese for it’s own good. While the story itself isn’t the most original ever concieved in the broad strokes, in the details it’s so tightly-packed with Eastern mysticism and mythology and it starts to resemble “Legend of Zu.” Genre fans, let me put it this way: When The Monkey King enters the plot, the film doesn’t stop to explain to the American audiences who, exactly, he is.
The technical star of the piece is Michael Angarano, the rising star younger fans may recall from the criminally-overlooked “Sky High.” Here he’s Jason, a bullied Boston teenager who worships the vintage Kung-Fu movies he buys from an elderly Chinatown shopkeep (Jackie Chan in startling old-age makeup.) During a robbery of the shop by local bullies, he ends up in the middle of the fray trying to protect a valuable antique fighting-staff… and finds himself (and said staff) yanked back into a mythical version of Ancient China and in the company of a wandering kung-fu master (Chan again, here inhabiting a version of his famous “Drunken Master” characterization as folk hero Taoist saint Lu Yan) who believes the boy is here to (you guessed it) Fulfill The Prophecy.
Short version: The Magic Staff is the weapon of The Monkey King (Jet Li plus some more surprising makeup work) a legendary hero who was turned into stone by the Jade Warlord, who has since ruled the land as a tyrant for hundreds of years. The Staff must be returned to Monkey King in order to free him, a task to which beautiful assassin Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu, which I’m thoroughly convinced means “holy SHIT!” in Mandarin) and the mysterious fighter Silent Monk (Li again, looking like himself) offer their services. You may also have guessed that returning the staff means walking right into the Jade Warlord’s stronghold on Five Elements Mountain – their paths blocked by master-assassin White-Haired Demoness (Li Bing Bing, who is approximately as hot as her name is fun to say) – and that reviving Monkey King is also Jason’s only hope of returning home.
Okay, okay. YES, it’s “The Wizard of Oz” crossed with “Journey Into The West.” And if you think you already know whether or not Jason will get home AND exactly what will occur when he does… yeah, you’re probably right. I’m not of the mind that this counts as any kind of serious flaw – children’s films and kung-fu movies are both, if nothing else, case-studies in the proper usage of formula-plotting. The answers to the two important questions are as follows: It’s a terrific, fun little movie and (most importantly) Chan and Li’s centerpiece one-on-one dustup is one for the books.
Going back, I’m still struck as to just HOW hard the film works to NOT cheapen the cultural-iconography it’s mining. Li’s turn as the Monkey King is absent from the American marketing entirely, likely because the iconic character (one of the most important figures in Chinese mythology and martial-arts fantasy films) A.) isn’t well known here and B.) the interpretation of him seen here is as traditional as one can get… and some American fans of Li’s harder-edged work likely aren’t prepared to see him wearing simian facial hair and performing “playful chimpanzee” pantomime. His native fans, though, are probably going to go (literally) ape for this, as it’s the kind of work he doesn’t do nearly enough and throws himself into it with gusto.
Meanwhile, the supporting cast (of characters) start to look like a Chinese version of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Not only is Chan’s Lu Yan a historical folk hero, Golden Sparrow and the Demoness are re-interpretations of characters that both appeared in golden-age kung-fu film and literature. Only the hardest of hardcore fans are going to catch this stateside, and it doesn’t detract from the movie-proper, but this kind of genuine respect for the genre and it’s origins from the Weinsteins of all producers is damn impressive – to the point that you almost forget that the Chinese characters living IN CHINA are primarily speaking English (or trying to, and it’s probably a mistake handing most of the exposition to Chan, but no matter.)
Hardcore kung-fu fans? Don’t let the rating and the kids-fantasy aspect turn you off – it’s a damn good bit of work. Family-filmgoers? Believe the hype: It’s the kung-fu movie you can take the kids to without worry AND enjoy yourself.
FINAL RATING: 8/10