When it comes to Asian martial arts stars that are known by a Western audience, there are really only a few names that one may think of (unless one has a decent knowledge of that regions cinematic output). Of course, Bruce Lee would probably be first and foremost in a lot of people’s minds. Beyond him, though, there is maybe a dozen other names that would spring to mind – starting with the stars of the film I will be reviewing today, Mr’s Jackie Chan and Jet Li. The film? Forbidden Kingdom.
Now, you’d think that for the first on screen meeting between two of the all time greats of action cinema, that we’d end up with something akin to Heat- whereby a film featuring two brilliant actors like Pacino and DeNiro only had them physically in the same scene for about 5 minutes. But no, what we are treated to is a film that is as much on the shoulders of one man as it is the other. If there are any egos here, they are firmly checked at the door.
Unfortunately, what we supposedly get a film that is as good as Heat, either (full disclosure, I’ve not seen the film yet). Instead, Forbidden Kingdom is what has been described as a somewhat underdone semi-retelling of Journey To The West. Many have said that it’s a film that really should have been so much better than it was – two absolute masters of their craft involved in a story that is one of my personal favourites (hell, one of the first things I did in China once I was able to was to buy my own copy of the story that I’d loved since I was a child). We shall see, shan’t we?
Alas, the story has been run through a “safe for Western audiences” filter. And you can tell this from the start, in the opening fight where The Monkey King is having a battle with some enemies on a CGI/greenscreen mountain range. Sure, the fight looks like it would be great, were it not being carried out at 1/6th speed. This does not bode well.
And, alas – it’s not even a real battle, it’s just the dream of our Martial Arts movie obsessed white boy hero. Yes, it’s that sort of film – forget the fact that we have Jet Li and Jackie Chan, we need to have a teenage white boy as our hero, so the audience can identify with the film. That annoys me quite a lot. Thankfully, we don’t have to wait too long for our first glimpse of Chan-sensei, even though he is under a pile of makeup, making him look not dissimilar to David Lo Pan. And, as is the way, he holds the key to adventure, but is very reluctant to share it.
Hey, look – it seems our hero (and what is it with kids being called Jason in these kinds of films?) is on the receiving end of some good ol’ fashioned family movie style bullying and racism, the kinds of bullies to whom a little vandalism and murder isn’t out of the question. Oh boy, I sure hope there is some way he can escape from all of this, and maybe end up in a world he really wants to be in – possibly go on a life changing adventure that helps him believe in himself...
Oh look – he has. Hopefully now the movie will kick it up a gear. Well, maybe, since Jason looks like Aang now. At least the film was actually filmed in China, so it looks pretty. And, because that is the way of a lot of Chinese folktales, there is a wicked warlord making everyone’s life a living hell, thus leading to a chase, in which Jason foolishly thinks he can outrun horses.
Enter Jackie Chan – drunk, passed out on a donkey, and playing the actual Lu Yan. That sounds about right. Now the fun can begin (at less than half speed, so the western audiences can process what is going on). Which just leads to some Drunken Fist shenanigans, I hope that’s not the only style he gets to bust out.
Now, Jason, as the hero of the story, has the key to ending the time of strife. And, HOLY CRAP – JET LI AS MONKEY KING!!! (I don’t IMDB films before I see them, I like to go in as blind as possible). And, the key to adventure? Monkey’s staff. You know what – I am digging this film way more than I expected to. At least so far. I just hope it doesn’t turn into “the kid is the true hero” – he’s already the seeker, he doesn’t need to be the hero of the whole piece.
And, because Lu Yan is Lu Yan, he gets to teach Jason the ways of true Gong Fu. At least until Jet Li joins the party (as The Silent Monk), then they get to share the duties. I smell a series of montages – or there better be. At least one with Jackie Chan AND Jet Li. I’ll tell you what, though – the first fight between Chan and Li was awesome. Simply because that is what it was – two masters doing what they do best - no WSD, no unneeded gimmicky, no reliance on CGI or obvious stuntmen, just two men doing what they do best.
Yes, the film turns very predictable along the way, with fights, drama, the expected montage AND lessons learned. Heck, there is even the to be expected “Jason (and holy hell, do I want to call him Aang) runs off to do this on his own, but ends up getting captured” scene. But you know what, I like the way it went. I can see why a few people wouldn’t like the film, but who gives a crap what they think. I am entertained, and that is all that matters.
And that is why I should never look at IMDB – yes, Jason said his full name when he first meets Lu Yan, but I registered it as a silly Greek-sounding name. But no, his last name is Tripitikas. And, as anyone remotely familiar with Journey To The West can tell you...Tripitaka. At least the writers have tried to get as many elements of the story down as they can. Thankfully, in a shout out to the Monkey TV show, Jason is a little girly man.
As for the battles, you’d think that with the levels of skill of all involved, there would be less reliance on CGI and gimmickry (asides from wirework), but no, tis not to be –plus we get a little bit too many “dramatic slow mo”. Plus, and this really annoys me (especially with whom is involved) there are a lot of quick edits in the fights – no real long shots showing the artistry involved in this sort of stuff. Thankfully, it’s not at the level of ridiculousness that a lot of films seem to be these days, so I will give it that. I don’t mind a few “hide the stuntman” shots, when Jason is involved, but you don’t need that sort of trickery with Chan and Li (at least not as much as they seemed), as they have both shown that they still have crazy good skills (even these days).
All in all, the film could have been better than it was – but I think that that was due to expectation. What I got was an enjoyable and fun romp that I know I’ll be watching again. People I like, retelling a story that I love – you can’t ask for more than that. And even the “white kid learns that he is the chosen one” parts of the story didn’t offend me as much as I thought they were going to.
And yes, Jason learned a lesson. A lesson in asskicking.