Starring Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Michael Angarano, Collin Chou, Liu Yi-Fei, Li Bing-Bing, Ye Xiao-Keng, Wang De-Shun, Morgan Benoit
Directed by Rob Minkoff
Expectations: Curious. I don’t remember it being very good.
The Forbidden Kingdom is far from great, but it is worthy of respect and attention. It is an American-produced fantasy wuxia, and I’m having a hard time thinking of any other film that fits that bill. For that alone it is interesting, but it’s also the first (and so far only) film that stars both Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Martial arts fans will no doubt want to see that, especially since the film contains a great fight between the two Hong Kong legends. Jet Li even plays the Monkey King during the film’s intro and finale! There’s so much I enjoy about this movie, but no matter how much I want to love this film for what it is, its missteps are hard to overlook.
The major problem is that while it features Jackie and Jet, neither of them are the lead. That honor goes to Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), an American teenager obsessed with Hong Kong movies. His room is adorned with posters of Shaw Brothers films and Bruce Lee, The Monkey Goes West plays on his TV, and he even has a Sega Dreamcast. It’s almost like the character was based on my own teenage years! I wouldn’t ask the shopkeeper for an “early Shaw Brothers movie featuring a guy doing leopard style,” though. I’ve also never said, “Sick! Ten Tigers of Kwantung,” although if I did find a copy of the Shaw classic in a secondhand store, I would say something like “Oh shit! Ten Tigers of Kwantung!” so perhaps they weren’t too far off the mark. 🙂
Anyway, Jason likes to buy Hong Kong movies from a pawn shop in Chinatown run by an old man named Hop (Jackie Chan). On one fateful day, Jason spots an incredible staff in the back room of the shop, and Old Hop tells him that its owner was supposed to return for it back when his grandfather ran the store. When some hoodlums try to rob the place, Hop gives the staff to Jason and asks him to find the owner. Jason escapes to the roof, but while defending himself from the troublemakers, he falls off the roof and lands in the alley below in ancient China. Now he must fulfill the wishes of Old Hop and return the magical staff to its owner.
Structuring the story like this is an interesting way to bring your fanbase’s love of the genre alive, but by placing an American kid at the center of the movie it limits the film considerably. It’s yet another example of the “white savior” thing that Hollywood loves to do when the film/setting includes a lot of non-white people. They could’ve at least cast an actual martial artist that could legitimately participate in the fights, and even better it could’ve been someone like Daniel Wu (although he was probably too old at this point). Whatever… I’m so sick of these movie white people entering a culture, learning their unique skill (such as kung fu in this film) and then competing on a level that outshines others who have practiced the skill their entire lives. It’s not even about Michael Angarano himself — he does well enough with the choreography, etc. — it’s just sad that with two of the biggest Asian stars of all time, Hollywood still felt they couldn’t carry the movie on their own. These white savior movies always annoy me to no end, and they never stop making them! Ugh. To this film’s credit, it does kind of make sense because of the nature of the central premise, but objectively it’s still frustrating.
In terms of action, The Forbidden Kingdom fares much better than most American martial arts films. Yuen Woo-Ping choreographed the action (along with Yuen Cheung-Yan & Ku Huen-Chiu) and they put together a wonderful, satisfying fight between Jackie and Jet that does justice to their legacies. Each fighter’s individual style is well-represented and they even go through a few different forms to up the fan service level to 11. This fight is essentially the main reason to watch this movie, but you also get a bunch of other good action and fantasy shenanigans throughout. It’s not quite up to Hong Kong standards, but it’s probably as close as Hollywood is ever going to get. Collin Chou is also a great villain, as is the Bride with White Hair-inspired character that Li Bing-Bing plays.
The Forbidden Kingdom would probably serve as a great intro to wuxia filmmaking for kids or anyone unfamiliar with the genre. For a hardened fan like myself, the film is somewhat pointless because I can just watch one of hundreds of better wuxias that don’t feature an annoying American teenager as their lead. The fight with Jackie and Jet is worth seeing, though, and I respect the film for attempting to bring a Chinese-style fantasy to American screens.
Also of note is that lead actor Michael Angarano would later go on to play Bertram Chickering on Steven Soderbergh’s excellent TV show The Knick!
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan is Shinjuku Incident, but I already reviewed that one so I’m heading straight into 2010’s The Spy Next Door (in November after the yearly all-horror October)! See ya then!