The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) dir. Rob Minkoff
Starring: Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Michael Angarano
“Forbidden Kingdom” is the long-awaited pairing of the two most celebrated martial arts movie stars in the world. With both actors in their forties, and their best work is behind them, they can still fight with verve and stylized energy. Though it’s an American production, from an untested American director and writer, the team delivers a film worthy of its influences and provides the ideal canvas for Li and Chan to showcase their talents together.
The plot is typical of the genre - a young kung-fu nerd teenager Jason Tripitkis (Michael Angarano) in South Boston discovers a magical staff in a Chinese pawn shop. After some high school bullies rob the store, Jason flees with the staff which then reveals some magical powers transporting him into the fantasy world he idolizes from his kung-fu movies.
Jason befriends a local drunk Lu Han (Jackie Chan) who tells him the story of his magical lance. Jason assumes the Frodo role as the prophecy’s keeper and journeys to the mountains to return the staff to its rightful owner – the imprisoned Monkey King. Along the way the duo pick up a feisty female warrior, The Golden Sparrow (Lius Yifei) and humble warrior monk (Jet Li). The monk and Lu Han educate Jason on the ways of kung fu, which will come in handy when everyone is eventually forced to fight against the evil forces that desire the sacred staff.
The film arrives with a great amount of hesitation and suspicion. “The Forbidden Kingdom” is not a Chinese film, it’s American, told mainly in English from a director with absolutely no action or martial arts directing experience. Rob (“Stuart Little”) Minkoff has no business being the man directing these two great artists, but he is smart and humble enough to hire the great fight choreographer Yuen-Woon Ping and legendary DOP Peter Pau (“Crouching Tiger”) as his chief aids. He also shoots the film mostly in China, which provides some of the most exquisite locales I’ve seen on film in a long time. Minkoff finds vistas and scenery we’ve never seen before and frames his camera as wide as possible to execute the epic tone of the film.
The story elements make it a mash-up of “Wizard of Oz”, “Transformers”, “Karate Kid”, and “Lord of the Rings”. The bookend scenes in Boston, which begin, and end the film, are gag inducing. The rudimentary plotting, acting and scripting make it an atrocious set up which gave off really bad vibes at the beginning, but once we enter the fantasy world the film takes off and soars. Story, plotting and acting are suspect at times, but they certainly top most of the dreadful plots I’ve seen in the great films from both actors.
The question of how these two great stars will fight each other is solved with smart and funny writing. Yes, we do get to see Chan and Li go at it, and yes it’s a long scene that takes up a decent 10-15mins of screen time. We get the best of both worlds when Li and Chan actually team up on the same side to battle the forces of evil – so don’t worry neither one is killed off early, they both continue to kick ass for the rest of the film. Though Chan and Li have noticeably much older faces they still possess the speed and agility to make the fights exciting. And their star power is always present even in between the fight scenes. Though their English is not good they command and share the screen equally and give fine performances.
Though “The Forbidden Kingdom” is not the dream film for these two it’s an accessible action film with a canvas big enough for Chan and Li to showcase their talent together. Minkoff has made a reverential kung-fu film to the work of Li and Chan. Enjoy.