The Forbidden Kingdom

forbidden-kingdom-poster“How good is your Kung Fu?”

The Scoop: 2008 PG-13, directed by Rob Minkoff and starring Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Michael Angarano

Tagline: The path is unsafe. The place is unknown. The journey is unbelievable.

Summary Capsule: It’s basically like Neverending Story …with Kung Fu.

Mike’s Rating: Your dragon style is no match for my five thumbs mutant rating technique!

Mike’s Review: It’s hard to explain to newcomers to the Kung Fu movie genre why this movie was so special in the hearts of fans, but for those who eat, sleep and breathe movies like Dragon Tiger Gate, House of Flying Daggers, Legend of Drunken Master or Once Upon a Time in China, the TV spots for this movie really did say it all:

Jackie Chan. Jet Li.

To those unfamiliar with the acrobatic, high kicking, wire-fu world of the Chop-socky flick, these two names don’t elicit much of a response. To those who love the genre however, it’s an event that can only be described as epic. Two men, both widely recognized as masters of their art meeting for the first time. This was akin to The Thing facing The Hulk, Ash taking on Freddy, or The Beatles touring with Aerosmith. The strength of these two names alone would’ve drawn movie audiences in droves to the multiplexes, but that wasn’t good enough for the makers of this film. No they had to go and make a beautifully shot, well-acted and well-written Chinese fairy tale which goes above and beyond on the action but also delivers more than it’s fair share of humor, wonder and all around fun.

The movie opens with a battle waged between the Immortal Monkey King and the Jade Army. The fight is ethereal, almost transcendent as the Monkey King floats and bounces among his would-be subduers with giddy ease. One thinks back to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which would make sense considering Yuen Wu Ping, the director and fight choreographer of that movie is choreographing these fights as well. We’re then introduced to Jason Tripitikas, (Michael Angarano, who I really liked in Sky High). An American teen living in modern-day Boston. Through a series of events Jason is transported back to a magical world reminiscent of Ancient China (though everyone speaks both Chinese and English), where he must team with a drunken immortal (Chan), a silent monk (Li), and a beautiful young musician who refers to herself in the third person. Together they must return a sacred Staff to the Monkey King and defeat the evil Jade Warlord. Needless to say he has to do all this before he can return home.

My comparison to Neverending Story in the summary capsule actually really sums up the experience. There’s a kid who is well versed in fanstasy (or in this case, Kung Fu movies), bullies in the real word, and an old shop-keeper who gives the hero the means of traveling into a another world. While there he learns self-confidence and valuable lessons to take back home. While it’s a formula we’ve seen before (most recently in movies like Spirited Away and Mirrormask), it’s executed in a really entertaining if not quite original way. The movie it reminds me of the most is Warriors of Virtue from a few years back. This is the movie I wanted that one to be.

The fight scenes are of course the main draw of the film, and they do not disappoint. With Wu Ping directing the two greatest martial arts stars in history, this was honestly never in doubt, but it would’ve been easy to downplay the martial arts in favor of the story only to end up having too much exposition and slow the film down to a snails pace and ultimately, disappoint the fans (a mistake made most recently when Li was teamed opposite Jason Statham in the movie War). Wu Ping understands the true purpose of a fight in a movie like this is to drive the story and he delivers the goods and then some. The first fight between Chan and Li, is nothing short of breathtaking, and for the duration, the movie never slacks. Even the nebbishy white kids gets to exhibit some wicked cool moves.

The other draw is the scenery in the film. Shot on location in China, the movie takes full advantage of the massive waterfalls, snow-capped mountains, sprawling deserts and serene lotus gardens. Certain digital shots are on par with Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia, giving this movie an epic feel that I think even Crouching Tiger failed to ascend to.

A word here about Angarano as the lead. I’ve read a lot of the forums and a lot of people are whining about an American white kid carrying the story, claiming Hollywood is only adding a white kid for marketability and to indulge some kind of “Asiaphile” fetish being propagated in the west. Posts like these are why they’re relegated to message boards on IMDB while I’m a Mutant Reviewer. Suck on that! Aside from being overly smug and reaching just WAY too far to be taken seriously, these people have completely missed the point of Jason as a character. As an American teen who literally obsesses over Martial Arts movies, Jason is identifiable to what’s gonna be the majority of the audience for this flick. We experience the movie through his eyes. The writer made the choice to make him relatable to all of us fanboys who’ve never even taken a karate lesson but could recite Drunken Master 2 if you’re watching without subtitles. From start to finish we can identify with Jason’s sense of wonder at the world around him even as we cheer him on, and it’s a great touch.

In recent years America has been trying to capture the magic that grips Hong Kong cinema. But for every Best of the Best or The Matrix, there were twenty or so American Ninja’s or sequels to The Matrix. Finally, I’m happy to say there’s an American-made movie that’s every bit on par with some of the greatest kung fu movies to come out of China. Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve gotta go do high kicks and twirl my katana around…

Kaleb’s Rating: Rollercoaster Stance!

Kaleb’s Review: Gosh kids, it sure was nice of Mike to handle all of the character descriptions and who-plays-who and the plot synopsis and all that other review-y stuff, so that I can just ramble and inject toilet humor and suddenly start talking about swing dance in the middle of everything, wasn’t it? Thanks Mike! Everybody wave!

But first, a warning: (and so, the tone of the review changes with an audible gear-grind, as per the norm) The Forbidden Kingdom – or, more specifically, my reaction to it – stands as a tisking, head-shaking example of the damage that uncontrolled self-hype can do.

My initial reaction to the film’s trailer was much the same as the likely majority. Trailer said, “Jackie Chan and Jet Li, together at last!” to which I responded, “I think I just lost a couple of years off the end of my life. Why has somebody not already done this ages ago?” I decided, then and there, that this movie was going to be so unspeakably wonderful that it would alter the very fabric of existence. I was setting myself up for an inevitable fall, and giving no thought to the consequences of my actions.

My nerd gland was further engorged by the implication that there would be at least some focus on the various animal-based stances of Kung Fu, which I find strangely fascinating (there is, and it makes for a happy Kaleb). But that kind of goes along with my geek-yen for anything with a long list of creatively-named, distinctive components. It allows me to take interest in things I might otherwise not, or at least feel somewhat more positively disposed toward things I don’t like. Perfect examples are skateboarding and professional wrestling, whose bloated and delectably-memorizable maneuver repertoires are the only reasons I might regard them with anything other than disinterest and loathing, respectively.

A more positive example would be swing dance, which my sister politely forced me to try out back in twenty-ought-five. But I’ll not discuss that any further, as I realize I have a tendency to. . .

HERE COMES A NEW CHALLENGER!!

Random Swing Dance Review!
West Coast – Pretty fun actually. Not that hard to pick up, although the instructor bugged me a little. She was one of those enthusiastic, get-up-and-go types that I’ve never been able to relate to or get along with.

East Coast – The most tedious, most humiliating, most failure-ridden half-hour of my life; and that is a title not lightly won. My sis only signed me up for one lesson, versus two or three of West, so I can’t help but think that she was in on it somehow.

. . .drift off topic.

But Kung Fu has the advantage of already being cool, and then having the nifty stances on top of that. Praying Mantis is good for catching bugs, says Chan’s character. Bah! It’s good for catching the ladies, is what it’s good for.

Although I have to admit, I’m not that impressed with the Horse stance. Because I’m not sure what it’s used for, or how it’s supposed to evoke a horse. As Li’s character observes, it resembles nothing so much as a person taking a hard poo. I would add that there also appears to be a very kicker-forgiving game of paper football going on.

So… I’m going to theorize that the stance is named not in honor of the horse itself, but rather its renowned defecatory prowess, both in volume and spontaneity, and that the paper football aspect derives from the fact that horses are also very disruptive in the classroom.

Okay! Good enough! Mystery solved!

Anyway, it was right in the middle of my elated reverie that Trailer popped up again, and was like, “Random white kid!” to which I elegantly riposted, “Aw CRAP!!” I very nearly became one of those IMDb trolls Mike mentioned. But then, I remembered my pre-emptive condemnation of Shia Labeouf back when Transformers was first announced. How I was convinced that he was going to depth-charge a movie that was already standing on shaky legs, and how he ended up being one of the best things about it.

So, I decided to give the kid a chance. Unfortunately, I forgot to extend the same courtesy to the star duo acting opposite him, by reeling my expectations back down from the lofty heights of Stupidly Unattainable-ness. As a result, after the credits rolled, and I found myself not having been incinerated and reborn from my own ashes or having grown breasts or anything, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed.

The stance mentioned in my Rating alludes to the fact that I can’t decide how to feel about this movie. I know I should like it, and mostly I do, but I can’t seem to keep myself from emitting little forlorn sighs whenever I think about it. It’s irrefutably a good movie, arguably a great movie, but it isn’t colossal, and that leaves me cold somehow.

But fret not for me, gentle reader. Shed no tears and make no fart noises in my direction, for all is not lost. I found that I enjoyed The Forbidden Kingdom noticeably more upon second viewing, perhaps having been able to push some of my irrational poutiness aside, recalibrate my expectations to Reasonable, and just enjoy a definitely-good, maybe-great, not-quite-colossal movie for what it is.

And so, in a manner appropriate to a review of what is, in the words of its own director, a love letter to fans of Kung Fu cinema, I leave you with one of those wise-sounding, flip-floppy platitudes that can only be understood through abandonment of all understanding: While I can’t entirely agree with Mike’s glowing assessment, I will admit that he’s right.

...He was a little fuzzy on the wheelbarrel race.

…He was a little fuzzy on the wheelbarrel race.

Intermission!

  • Based on the Chinese epic story ‘Journey to the West’, one of the four great classic novels of Chinese Literature. The novel is a fictionalized account of the legends around the Buddhist monk Tang Sanzhuang’s pilgrimage to India during the Tang dynasty in order to obtain Buddhist scriptures. Many programs have been based on this tale, such as television show “Saiyûki”, and anime series “Dragon Ball Z” holds a few loose facts from the same story.
  • The characters are mostly taken from Chinese mythology and adventure pulps. Lu Yan is a famous Taoist Saint. The Jade Emperor is the ruler of the Heavens in Chinese myth. The Monkey King is from a 16th Century fantasy epic by Wu Cheng En. Golden Swallow was the name of the character played by Cheng Pei Pei in a number of Shaw Bros films like Da zui xia. The White Haired Demoness is the anti-heroine of a pulp novel by Liang Yusheng (filmed twice) with the same title.
  • This movie marks the very first collaboration between martial arts masters Jet Li and Jackie Chan.
  • This is the very first movie that Jackie Chan has made in Hollywood where he hasn’t served as martial arts choreographer.
  • This movie went through five script re-writes before it was completed, many of which were done in the middle of filming.
  • Do you think Jason likes Kung Fu or something?
  • The opening title homage to all the old kung fu exploitation flicks in the 70’s
  • I didn’t realize Jackie Chan was Old Hop until like ten mintues in, that’s good acting and make up.
  • I knew Jet was playing the Monkey King immediately though
  • The way Sparrow talks about herself in unspecific pronouns is kinda off-putting… or would be if she wasn’t so hot.
  • Jackie using Drunken Boxing and Jet using Shaolin style as they fight each other? I got chills.
  • Why is he whining about clearing the tall grass? Hasn’t he seen Karate Kid?
  • The collective groan of every guy in the theater during one painful training scene
  • Every time the kid starts training I’m thinking “yeah we’re gonna need a MONTAGE!”

Groovy Quotes

(Lu Yan is drunkenly moving towards Jason speaking Chinese)
Jason: I can’t understand what you’re saying!
Lu Yan: That is because YOU’RE NOT LISTENING!!

Jason: Is this a dream?
Lu Yan: No, this is real. Where you come from, that is the dream. The gate of no gate.

Lu Yan: How good is your Kung Fu?
Jason: huh?
Lu Yan: Ah! I see! He who knows does not speak and he who speaks does not know. You say nothing. You must be a great master!

(The group has asked a shaolin abbot for medicine for Lu Yan)
Abbot: We will send a walking Monk.
Lu Yan: (injured in bed) Don’t you have a running Monk?

Lu Yan: What are you doing? He is my student, not yours! Two tigers cannot occupy the same mountain as one student cannot have two masters!

Lu Yan: First rule! Show respect to your teachers!
Silent Monk: What about the two tigers on the mountain?
Lu Yan: We can kill each other when it is over.

Lu Yan: (after pulling out some wine) What? You consider it a sin?
Silent Monk: Yes! It is a sin not to share.

Silent Monk: Vengeance has a way of turning on oneself.
Lu Yan: …Mr. Sensitive.

Lu Yan: Praying Mantis. Very good. . . for catching bugs! But not tigers!
Silent Monk: Horse stance. Very good. . . for taking a dump.

If you liked this movie, try these:

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