Monday, April 21, 2008
THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM Review
In a Nutshell: come for the Jackie Chan/ Jet Li face-off, but stay for the surprisingly enjoyable fantasy tale. Not a perfect film, but certainly a fun night out at the movies. If you don't like fantasy or martial arts, you may be turned off, but those who appreciate either will have a ball.
* * * 1/2 (out of five)
The Full Scoop: If you expect me to hold a predisposed favorable bias toward a movie pairing Jackie Chan and Jet Li, you'd be right. Knowing that this film had a 7-minute brawl between these two icons, I was prepared to pay full admission for that one scene alone, even if the rest of the movie were total crap. To my surprise, however, the rest of the movie is actually a very enjoyable fantasy, a journey in the vein of The Wizard of Oz (if Dorothy were a Boston teen, the red-slippers were a fighting staff, and the villains weren't disposed of by water, but by a huge, tag-team a**-whooping!). The film has the tone of the great family-friendly adventure movies of the 80's, the ones that captured the imaginations of kids and adults alike. I'm talking The Goonies, The Karate Kid, The NeverEnding Story, Willow, and to a lesser extent, The Flight of the Navigator. This movie reminded me of the movies that I loved as a kid (and still love today.) Stir that up with 70's kung-fu movies, a little dash of Disney morality (the movie was directed by The Lion King helmer Rob Minkoff), gorgeous cinematography of rugged Chinese landscapes, fight choreography by Yuen Wo Ping (who did the fights for Crouching Tiger and The Matrix trilogy), some Chinese mythology, and a handful of comedic scenes ranging from amusing to hilarious, and that's what this movie is.
The screenwriter is an American who is also a student of Jet Li's, and it's obvious that he loves Chinese culture, mythology, and cinema. This film is an obvious love letter to all of that, and you should know going into it that it's meant to introduce Western audiences to the characters of Chinese legends. The Greeks had Hercules and Zeus, Americans have Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. The Chinese have their own mythical heroes and villains (mostly unfamiliar to us) who are thrown together in this movie: The Monkey King, The Bride With White Hair, etc. If you watch it with the wrong mindset, these characters might seem silly; however, if you watch it the same way you'd watch a film like The Wizard of Oz, the characters are great fun. I loved Jet Li's playful performance as The Monkey King (both he and Jackie Chan have dual roles in this), and The Bride With White Hair is such an enjoyably evil villain, I want to learn more about her mythology. I especially loved the musical motiff for her; the movie's score is often beautifully symphonic, but whenever she comes on screen, it sounds more like a riff for the villain in a spaghetti western or in a Tarantino film. It was intentionally campy and over the top and I loved it.
The other villain is played by Collin Chou, who Matrix fans will recognize as Seraph in the two sequels. He and Jet Li have a sweet little brawl. Which leads me to the main event. The action! I must admit, I was worried. Jackie Chan is now 54 years old, and Jet Li is in his mid-40's. The paltry action in Rush Hour 3 had me sadly resigned to the belief that Jackie was now officially too old to do good action scenes. Thank you, Yuen Wo Ping, for proving me wrong (and curse you, Brett Ratner, for dumping on the Jackie Chan legacy!) Jackie is at least 10 years past his prime (maybe 15), and Jet is 5-10 years past the same himself. However, I compare them to the Millenium Falcon: there's years' worth of wear and tear, but they've still got it where it counts and can jump into hyperdrive when necessary. Both can still throw some mean kicks, but it's the fisticuffs (especially when they go head to head) that had me in awe. There are some gorgeous punching/blocking combos going on here! All of the fights are very good (heck, even the kid holds his own after some amusing Karate Kid/Young Master-style training). Jackie's fight in a tea house and Jet's fight vs. Collin Chou are both noteworthy. But its the long-awaited, 7 minute-long rumble between Jackie and Jet that is the film's highlight. Yes, it's seven minutes, but it only feels like three, it goes by so fast (I mean that as a compliment). True, this showdown might have been even better ten years ago, but both athletes are obviously pushing each other here, and they bring out the best in each other. Die-hard Chan devotees will thrill at seeing him briefly bust out his famous "drunken boxing" style against Jet Li, though casual film-goers may not recognize it.
Normally I'm opposed to any type of wirework in a movie with Jackie Chan. His raw athleticism speaks for itself (he don't need no stinking tricks)! However, I'll make an exception here, because Yuen Wo Ping's wirework: 1) actually accentuates his actor's athleticism, rather than compensating for a lack thereof, and 2) is often in the fantasy realm, so supernatural moves are more acceptable. The fights in this movie are definitely in Wo-Ping's style; sorry Chan-fans, there's not a lot of comedic prop-fighting, wall climbs, or death-defying stunts here. On the plus side, people who think Chan is an acrobatic clown who can't do real martial arts can finally shut up after this, as he expertly demonstrates various styles here. Jet Li, of course, kicks all kinds of trash. The film is very much a Jackie Chan film in terms of comedy (Jet Li even has a few wonderfully funny moments), but the fights are more in the Jet Li, Yuen Wo-Ping sensibility. The sound design on the fights is wonderful, with some meaty punches. Chan's English is noticeably improved, broadening his comedic abilities beyond physical comedy and into the realm of legitimately well-delivered English dialogue.
Of course, the film is not perfect. I don't want to gush on and on about what is, after all, nothing but a fluffy popcorn movie. Some of the dialogue is laughable. Much of the story is cliche and has been done before, both in other fantasy movies and in the collective Chan/Li canon. And the film drags at times. What matters, though, is that it always picks itself up. Just when nothing good has happened for a few minutes, a great comedic scene or fight occurs. The cast is all obviously having fun. Jackie Chan and Jet Li have a natural screen repoire. And yes, I even liked the teenage kid. All in all, this is a fun fantasy adventure that certainly doesn't have the depth of a Lord of the Rings, but has more than enough charm to merit a watch on the big screen.