Sunday, September 30, 2018

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

Finally, a movie starring martial arts greats Jackie Chan and Jet Li together! Let's see how well it fares...

Jason Tripitkas  is a martial arts film fan who regularly visits a Chinatown shop run by the aging Hop. One day he's cornered by some young hoodlums and forced to help rob the store. Hop is shot when trying to fight off his attackers, giving Jason a mysterious staff that he tells him to restore to its rightful owner, before the youth is cornered on the roof and falls off. Suddenly finding himself in a new land in a new time, Jason learns of the benevolent Monkey King, a trickster deity who crossed swords with the Jade Warlord, a despotic general in the Heavenly Realm who took control of the land when the true ruler was meditation, and imprisoned the monkey king through deception. Finding out that he holds the Monkey King's staff, Jason is told that it's the key to freeing its master. Along the way, he meets a variety of allies, who are all determined to help stop the evil Jade Warlord and bring peace back to the land...

Taking its inspiration from Journey of the West (though isn't a strict adaption, as far as I know), The Forbidden Kingdom is quite a good adventure fantasy. I'm not exactly crazy about really heavy Wuxia films, so it's a testament to the quality here that this is able to keep interest the whole way through. With its mix of Kung Fu, philosophy, drama, and a thankfully minimal use of flying wire fu (which I always find to look absolutely ridiculous, especially in movies that are supposed to be serious), this encapsulates a lot of the themes of the genre.

What I find impressive is that how apart from the opening 10 minutes, literally everyone in this movie is Asian! A good chunk of the dialogue is in Cantonese, too.

The story in Forbidden Kingdom is a good one. Despite knowing little about any of the characters, we still get to care at least a little about them. The villains don't have a lot of depth though. There's a surprising amount of death here for a pretty family friendly journey! There are also some possible inconsistencies with the immortality elixir, but then again maybe not. I guess I'd make more sense in the source material, given that's a lot longer than a 90 minute film and can explain things better.

The martial arts on display is very impressive, as can be expected from the two world-famous stars, as well as everyone else behind the scenes working tirelessly. It can sometimes get a bit too frenetic to see clearly (mainly when there are more than just a couple of belligerents), but it's usually great to watch, with spot-on choreography.

The main draw of The Forbidden Kingdom is that it stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li together in one movie. Their fight scene is very good, though it stretches on perhaps a bit long. I at least get why, since Lu Yan and the Monk are on the same side from then on, so this is really their only opportunity to have a fight scene. The only thing coming close is when they both spar using Jason as a shield and weapon.

Jason Tripitikas makes for a decent hero, and The Forbidden Kingdom successfully keeps from falling into the 'unskilled white guy saves the helpless foreigners' trope. In fact, I'm sure the Chinese co-producers made damn sure we see that this American only learns the amazing stuff he does because the fantastic Chinese taught him. They do so love doing that in their co-productions. Anyway, getting back to Jason, he sometimes whines a bit and can be impetuous, but he's not egregiously annoying or anything, and when he is a bit of a pain in the neck, it's intentional. When he becomes more skilled at martial arts, it feels earned, as we've seen him gradually train over the course of however much time has passed. While it's a bit silly that he's a bit of a Kung Fu master by the climax, I guess that's excuseable for a movie, and we do see him as not an entirely flawless fighter against the main baddies, so there's that. Jason does get sidelined a bit in the climax, but for the most part each hero gets their own opponent to do battle with at any given moment.

Through no real fault of his own, Jason's 'sidekicks' each eclipse him. Lu Yan is a fun drunken master, whose booze habits never make his skills falter. The 'Silent' Monk feels more lively than other strong and silent badasses by getting amusing moments (some of which might verge on too much for some viewers, but I didn't mind). Lastly, Golden Sparrow is a more gloomy character, with good reason, and her non-personal speech pattern is typically strange, though she does something incredibly stupid in the last act. Try the art of stealth, Sparrow!

The acting in The Forbidden Kingdom is mixed, and I'm not sure if it's a matter of talent, but rather one of language. Being 100% English, Michael Angarano does fine. Jackie Chan is mostly good, though a bit hard to understand in places, especially in the scenes set in our world, where a mix of awful and creepy old age make-up and a put-on croaky voice make him almost indecipherable. Jet Li's line delivery is sometimes a bit weird. I hesitate to say bad because I've seen him in enough English language roles to know he can act, but he's oddly stilted in places. Whether it not it's a deliberate quirk of his character I've no idea. Liu Yufei gets a lot of the movie's drama, and handles it ok enough. Collin Chou makes for a fun villain, whose line deliveries are deliciously evil, even if a bit overdramatic at times. The witch is much of the same, but just to a lesser degree.

The score is made up of traditional sounding Chinese music, while other parts sometimes sound reminiscent of Once Upon a Time in the West.

Filmed on location in China, the scenery is often breathtaking, and it's no surprise that nearly half a dozen tourism companies are given thanks in the ending credits. The set design is well-realised, and the practical effects are impressive. Overt computer effects are kept to a minimum, and while some of the more bigger CG stuff can be a tad noticeable, there's not much here to complain about. The opening credits are pretty neat, made up of the posters to various kung fu flicks.

The Forbidden Kingdom isn't perfect, but it's by no means a bad time. While there are many better Kung Fu and Wuxia movies out there, you can't go too far wrong with this one...

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