Review: The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

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The Forbidden Kingdom attracted huge attention from the moment it was rumoured that the world’s two biggest names in martial arts cinema would be working together. The J & J Project, they whispered. Yuen Wo Ping’s choreographing, they typed. There were naysayers, too: It’s American, from Miramax, and from the director of… Stuart Little, of all things. The trailers looked OK, though, with a strong emphasis on the action sequences, and it had Jet Li in it as the Monkey King, a role I’ve been waiting for him to play for years.

Nonetheless, I sat down to watch it already in half-cringe, burnt by too many lukewarm Hollywood films starring our two leads. The film begins, though, with its heart on its sleeve: an homage to Hong Kong cinema, from the classic Shaws posters animated into the opening credits through to Jet Li’s gleeful rampage through the armies of Heaven as the Monkey King. We’re even introduced to our lead as we wakes up, the Shaws production of Monkey Goes West showing on his bedside TV set.

The young man in question is Jason Tripitakas (Michael Angarano), an American lad in modern-day Boston with a fascination for all things kung-fu, one he indulges by visiting a shop selling videos and curios in Chinatown. The shop is run by Hop, an elderly gentleman played by a very heavily made-up Jackie Chan. Jason finds a heavy, ornate staff in a back room and (through the magic of cinema) is transported back in time to ancient China, charged with returning it to its rightful owner.

Along the way, he meets Lu Yan (Jackie Chan again), a beggar who seems surprisingly good at martial arts, Golden Sparrow (Liu Yi Fei), a fighter in search of vengeance, and the Silent Monk (Jet Li), a Buddhist who intends to see that Jason’s staff reaches its destination. In the other corner, we have the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) and his minions, chief among whom is Ni Chang, the white-haired witch (Li Bing Bing).

Elements of the above might seem familiar to Heroic readers: The Forbidden Kingdom leans heavily on Hong Kong cinema of the past, borrowing characters and settings from everything from King Hu’s Come Drink With Me to The Bride with White Hair. These two in particular were a little grating, since Golden Swallow and Ni Chang are only superficially anything like their characters in the originals, and I love both films to death. Veteran cinematographer Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Bride with White Hair, and many more) makes the film look beautiful, and there’s not much to fault with the direction, either. It’s really the script that makes the film a bit flat, especially when you consider that all that cliched dialogue had do be delivered in English by Chinese actors.

Despite this, Jackie Chan and Jet Li hold the film together; although Jason is nominally the main character, it’s the two older actors that fill the screen. Jackie Chan’s not really played the older master before, and he does a good job, charismatically echoing Simon Yuen’s Beggar So in Drunken Master at the start of his career. Jet Li’s Silent Monk is a less central character, but he manages to steal the scene occasionally: notably in an example of the Buddhist vs. Taoist bickering we see in so many older kung fu films.

The detractors have one thing right, though. It’s a very American film. It rockets along, assembling bits and pieces of Chinese literature and Hong Kong martial arts cinema into a somewhat ungainly whole, bookended by a Neverending Story-style escape from modern America. It feels… safe, focus-grouped, an adventure for an average American kid through the exotic world of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It achieves that aim without only a few missteps: it’s just not the powerhouse combination of the stars’ back-catalogues that many were hoping for.

6.5 thumbnail sketches of classic HK film out of 10.
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