The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

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A fantasy filled adventure that delivers on style and beauty. It also delivers the punches of martial arts fighting though that side of things does start getting annoying after a while. The mix up of Oriental substance and bookending American fish out of water status works enough even if that’s a pretty standard/used a lot trope to go for.

I remember when I first went to see this movie, I was just so excited to see the two massive stars of the martial arts world come together for the first time on film. The meetup isn’t overly disappointing to be fair even though they’re on the same side and only fight once.

This Chinese and American movie starts with a dream that soon becomes more than that. After waking we as the audience discover this Boston teenager named Jason (Michael Angarano) is a huge fan of all things martial artsy. He clearly often visits an old man’s pawn shop to build his foreign film DVD collection and after a dangerous clash with some bullies he finds himself in a village in ancient China of all places. Once there the dream he had of a monkey king and a golden staff become evidently true and he has to return the item to a palace and the rightful owner to restore good in the kingdom. It’s with help from a talented yet misfit crew (Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Liu Yifei) that Jason starts to breathe the real taste of the world he once saw on a screen and as posters on his wall.

It’s a film that does have a beautiful look and to match the changing landscapes of China there is beautiful music. The score by David Buckley is stirring and oriental to suit and it rises for fights and falls in the right places for subtle yet fitting background sounds. The odd thing is at one point when re-watching this film today I swore one of the musical pieces sounded quite like the emotional setting used for ‘The Lion King’ and then I found out the director of this, Rob Minkoff also directed that classic Disney film. Not much to do with this film but a weird coincidence that I thought I’d share.

The locations of greenery, deserts, villages, temples and the parallel of the grungy smoke filled Boston world help make the film look good even if the story of overcoming teenager is a cliched tool. The moment of Jason stumbling out of a shack and onto the discovery of ancient China is similar to Dorothy leaving Kansas and finding herself in the technicolor world of Oz. That isn’t the only similarity as characters from the Far East become other characters in Boston, all in all he wants to return home and must do so by stepping through the gate of no gate or clicking his red shoes together in other terms, there’s that and the dream like wonder of this new world for Jason being akin to the story of ‘The Wizard of Oz’.

Jackie Chan is brilliant as two characters and Jet Li is also brilliant with his two characters. Jet Li gets to play the silent one and the crazy mischievous one whereas Chan excelles as the drunken one and the old wise one. The two are literally like fighting gods with their styles and throughout this film there are references and uses of ancient techniques from the Crane to the Tiger to the Praying Mantis. The duel between Chan and Li about 40 minutes in is good but not breathtaking. The fight does go on for a little while giving room for fun and epic clashes and to answer who wins, obviously there is no winner as I don’t think you could ever pick these two apart. Though the fights on the whole throughout the entire film feel repetitive after a while, what with all the stick defending, kicks and punches. More than this it’s the reliance on silly wire stunt work that takes away from the fact that the two leads could fight without these interference. I wanted the brutal skilled nature of Li and the fun yet talented mastery of Chan using the things around him but it doesn’t happen.

The only other main negative is the filling material of shooting back to sequences that describe the past or legends and stories of days gone by. It works when hearing it but then after a while there’s too much and you just want to get back to the main story. It’s that filler of looking at the past that takes up a lot of the movie’s running time in it’s attempt to mirror Jason’s view of this new land. It is just down to cliched storytelling and the frankly poor allusion to a love story strand that makes this film something other than the grand spectacle of the Chan/Li brilliance it could have been.

It’s still an entertaining if not cheesy martial arts romp that lights up thanks to the talents of Jet Li and Jackie Chan.

6/10

 

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