A film review by Craig J. Koban


2008, PG-13, 113 mins.


Michael Angarano: Jason Tripitikas / Jackie Chan: Lu Yan/Old Hop /  Jet Li: Monkey King/Monk / Liu Yifei: Golden Sparrow

Directed by Rob Minkoff / Written by John Fusco

I have always loved comic books, maybe because of their larger than life iconography.  While I was a young tyke my hands-down favorite book was the very appropriately titled WORLD’S FINEST.  The most tantalizing aspect of that comic that made pre-pubescent boys drool with frothing anticipation was the fact it pitted the two heavyweights of the super hero world together in each issue:  Batman and Superman.  The pairing of these legends of the spandex-clad literary universe was a revelation to me when I picked up my first issue of FINEST.  I thought, "My God, this is fantastic!  Two of my most cherished heroes…in one comic!".  

My geekdom pulse was at an all-time high. 

The advertising for THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM initially stirred up similar sensations and levels of anticipation in me.  For decades fans of chop-sockey, kung fu action pictures have been savoring for the possibility of a Jackie Chan and Jet Li team up in one slam bam martial art frenzy.   Chan and Li are easily two of the most well-known and popular kung fu stars of the cinema; they are fundamentally the Batman and Superman of martial arts films.  I myself have always expressed a clear-cut preference for Chan, who has always embodied a sort of wide-eyed, childlike enthusiasm and charisma that gave his action roles a much-needed goofy, comic edge.  I appreciate Li as well, but more as a dexterous and commanding physical presence in his films.  Nonetheless, the very notion of a Li/Chan team up will undoubtedly have fanboys drooling. 

Alas, what’s ultimately disappointing about this long awaited on-screen partnership is that THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is a dull, tedious, lethargic, and boring ride.  The 10-year old emotionally stunted boy in me enjoyed it, but the 33-year-old pragmatist in me found it lifeless, predictable, routine, and banal.  What’s worse is that the much-ballyhooed partnership of Li and Chan is regrettably unsatisfactory and substandard.  You know you’re in trouble when you leave a film like this a feel that it’s advertising is a bit of a crock that does not hold up to its intentions. 

While watching THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM I was slightly reminded of another lackluster Jet Li film from 2007, WAR, for the way it fraudulently marketed what many assumed was going to be a mano-amano match up between Li and Jason Statham.  That film was stunningly inept for the way it never capitalized on its advertised promises of having Li and Statham engage in a kung fu orgy of gravity defying theatrics.  THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is certainly not as wretched and incompetent as WAR, but it still left me feeling disgruntled.  Chan and Li are given top billing, but they are essentially supporting roles and are playing second fiddle to the main character that engages in a Luke Skywalkerian hero’s journey story.  Yes, the two do fight, and when they do it's pure rock ‘n roll, akin to seeing the Beatles and Rolling Stones doing a one-night only gig together, but the film around that one scene is tired and monotonous.  We also don’t see them together until the forty minute mark, which some would argue is a good thing to elevate and build anticipation, but I would argue the contrary:  Why would I want to wait until the half way point of WORLD’S FINEST to finally see The Caped Crusader and The Man of Steel fiiiiinnnally meet up. 

What’s worse is the fact that THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is pure, uncultured, predictable cornball through and through.  It’s like a dumbed down hybrid of conglomerated story threads and ideas from such diverse movies like THE WIZARD OF OZ, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, and…no, really…THE KARATE KID.  The latter film’s vibe is humorously felt throughout, as we see a noble, scrawny, and socially isolated teen go on a full Ralph Macchio journey of self discovery and fulfillment.  By discovery and fulfillment I mean that he is clobbered by mean-spirited and tough teen hoods early in the film and then he learns to be a martial arts dynamo and inevitably gets some serious comeuppance during the film's final act.  The undercurrent of inherent silliness and regurgitation of this story element, combined with the more fantastical themes of the film, make THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM kind of gel incoherently:  At times it’s farcical, bumbling, slapstick, and then solemnly serious and dramatic, and so on.  There’s just a bit too much going on here. 

At least the main teen character is spunky and likeable, if not a bit dull and paint-by-numbers as a personality.  He is Michael Angarano and is played by Jason Tripitikas, who was so much more engaging in the very funny super hero satire SKY HIGH.  Here he is a Bostonian teen who is obsessed with martial arts cinema, especially hard to find bootleg movies.  He especially likes to hang out in a Chinatown pawnshop run by a very ancient Chinese man (played by none other than Chan, almost unrecognizable under pounds of latex makeup).  Enter a greaser gang straight from the 1950’s that – the horror! – force the weak and meager Michael to help them rob the store.  The storeowner is shot – but maybe, just maybe, he’s immortal – and Jason flees the scene with a mystical and magical staff (rings and golden compasses have already been used in movies and literature) and he finds himself oddly whisked away to ancient China faster than he can say, “Shazam!” 

The film then spends an awful amount of time on scene after scene of exhausting expositional dialogue and scenes of reflection, which grind the film down to a halt and made me check my watch a bit too much.  Michael hooks up with a puzzling old drunk cook named Lu Yan (Chan, whose performance and martial arts displayed here reminded me of his greatest action performance in the DRUNKEN MASTER films with his drunken boxing fighting style).  They sit down and Yan goes to great lengths to explain everything to Jason – and the audience – as to who’s who and what’s going on.  I grew listless with each flashback and explanation provided by Chan's character and simply started to clue out.

I found it increasingly hard to care much about anything that was revealed, but let’s just say that the magical staff Michael has needs to be given back to the Monkey King (Jet Li, also under makeup of the furrier variety).  You see, there is the painfully mandatory prophesy of the "seeker" or chosen one…whatever…that will travel through the “gate of no gate” (I hate double negatives in prophecies!) to deliver the staff back to the entombed body of the Monkey King.  The king has been turned to stone by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou, kind of a Cantonese Hugo Weaving).  Alas, Jason is assisted by Lu Yan, a beautiful young babe of a warrior (Liu Yifei, who fulfills the film’s need for a stock love interest; too bad the direction and performances forgot about chemistry) and a nameless monk (Li again).  Li and Chan’s characters, of course, train Michael in the way of the fist, which preordains the film to a third act and a final confrontation with those modern day greaser bullies that anyone can see from an ancient mile away. 

THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM attempts for magic and fantastical intrigue, but the film genuinely lacks inspiration and a sense of awe to the proceedings.  The story is stilted and humdrum, the characters are cardboard cutouts and stiff, the visual effects lack polish, and the dialogue is laughably hokey.  If anything, the film made me feel empty in the way it made me care so little – if anything – for any of the characters and their plight: There is never a sense of doom, impending danger or tension at any moment.  More often than not, THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is a hammy, eye-rolling spectacle that is more mind numbing and wearisome than exciting and rousing.

Then there is the team up of Li and Chan and, yes, their martial arts match up that is the centerpiece of the film – which occurs in a decaying shrine – is an unqualified showstopper.  The choreography is by the legendary Woo Ping-Yuen and it's as breathtaking as even, even if one scrutinizes how much of what’s shown is actually Chan and Li and not stunt doubles (when the camera pans back to wide, overhead shots, you begin to question the integrity of who's doing what).  Yet, Chan and Li have little to prove (especially the former, who has made a career of performing what could have been life-altering stunts time and time again), but Chan is a man in his 50’s and well past his prime and Li is ten years Chan’s junior, but aging as well.  There is no doubt the two are awfully spectacular in this fight together, but there is a undercurrent of “what could have been” to this sequence, especially if you consider what the two could have been capable of achieving if matched up ten or 15 years earlier.

So their fight is great, but their other moments together fall thuddingly flat.  What’s so underwhelming about the film is how downright bereft the pair are of any dramatic and comic chemistry.  Maybe a better choice would have been for THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM to be a foreign language and not English film.  Li has proved numerous times that he is a one-note, expressionless, and stoic actor that has been altogether painful to endure in Hollywood films (he was so much better in his native tongue in FEARLESS, which had a performance I admired).  Chan has always faired a bit better in English roles, seeing as his broken English adds to his whimsicality and foolish demeanor (for playing comic scenes, Chan is clearly Li's superior).  Outside of their battle scenes, the duo simply has no indescribable spark or sense of camaraderie.  You rarely get the sense that the two are having any fun playing off of one another, which is a shame.  There is no real joy in seeing the two act opposite of each other when not exchanging blows, although one very humorous scene - showing the two indirectly beat up on Michael while training him to block blows - is a hoot.

In the end, it’s really hard for me to label THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM as anything more than a disagreeable letdown.  This much anticipated and feverously touted match-up and pairing of the 54-year-old Chan and the 44-year-old Li sparkles in the film’s main action scene, but the two simple fizzle when on-screen beyond that moment.  What’s even more egregious is that they play second fiddle to the plight and story of the main teen character that engages in a mythical story of lumbering exposition and slow moving narrative momentum.   Very young kids will get a kick out the film, as will only the true die-hard Li/Chan fundamentalists, but for all others THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is strictly forbidden territory.  

For what it’s worth, picking up an old copy of WORLD’S FINEST is more pleasurable than this film. 

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