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such a nasty woman | by maryann johanson

The Forbidden Kingdom (review)

Enter the Southie

So a martial-arts-mad teen from South Boston goes into a Chinatown pawn shop, see. It’s pretty much the same little-bit-scary, little-bit-cool, loaded-with-interesting-old-junk Chinatown pawn shop that Hoyt Axton went into in Gremlins and came out with the cute, cuddly Mogwai, so you know some weird shit is in the offing. And sure enough if Jason Tripitikas, a sweet, soulful nerd, doesn’t come out with a staff. Not just any staff: an ancient legendary Chinese staff. Sure, it looks kinda like just a big stick, maybe a broom handle or something, but it’s magic.
Uh huh. ’Course it is. But dang if the thing doesn’t send Jason back in time and across dreamy landscapes and smack into the middle of a grand quest in medieval China to return that staff, which turns out to really be fabled and mystical and all, to someone called the Monkey King. Who’s immortal. And he can fly. And he looks like Jet Li with blond monkey facial hair. Hilarious.

No, seriously, it is. Hilarious, that is. And cheeky and cheery and so popcorn-a-licious a fantasy historical action comedy that you want to stand up and cheer. In the endless parade of wannabe deep-and-meaningful pseudomythic would-be hero’s-journey adventure flicks, here’s one that finally feels fresh and original and its own thoroughly delightful self. For even as it draws on the same archetypcal roots as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, as well as a mishmash of actual ancient Chinese legends, it’s not trying to get away with anything: it’s not trying to pretend it’s not going down a road that’s already well traveled. But it’s so breezy and laid-back in how it follows that road that even when it’s throwing a deliberate nod to its predecessors — there’s a cantina scene! and it’s very funny — it’s never presumptuous and it’s always witty and winking.

Actually, hey: forget Star Wars. The Forbidden Kingdom is The Wizard of Oz with kung-fu, a journey to a magical land that may exist only in Jason’s imagination. He doesn’t speak medieval Chinese, but fortunately for him, everyone in medieval China appears to speak English… such as Jackie Chan’s Lu Yan, a drunken itinerant martial arts master (how many of those can possibly be wandering around?) who takes poor displaced Jason under his wing. Chan’s a bit Scarecrowish, in fact, which would make Jet Li (in a dual role) as the Silent Monk — another apparently itinerant martial arts master, though a sober one — something like the Tin Man. Though they’re actually both kinda like Obi-Wan Kenobi, who take it in turns to teach Jason better kung-fu than he’s learned from watching old Bruce Lee movies. There’s no Cowardly Lion, but there is a kick-ass kung-fu chick called Golden Sparrow (played by the smoothly dangerous Liu Yifei), who’s got a bone to pick with the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou: Jet Li’s Fearless, The Matrix Revolutions), whom they’re all off to find because he’s the one holding the Monkey King captive… a Monkey King who can only be freed once his staff is returned to him. And yes: the Monkey King can fly.

Director Rob Minkoff (The Haunted Mansion, Stuart Little 2), working from a script by John Fusco (Hidalgo, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron), juggles it all so wonderfully blithely: the law-of-physics-defying combat, the occasionally stunning dramatic moments, the humor, even the extremely tentative romance just hinting at blossoming between Jason and Golden Sparrow. The clippety-clip of the pace never lets up, and the movie’s over before you realize you don’t want it to be. But the most surprising thing about The Forbidden Kingdom is that the most surprising thing isn’t the chance to witness the first pairing of screen legends Chan (Rush Hour 3, Around the World in 80 Days) and Li (Jet Li’s Fearless, Unleashed) — they’re so comfortable together that it seems that, surely, they’ve worked together before.

No, the big revelation here is 20-year-old Michael Angarano as Jason, who’s been kicking around in smaller movies for a while now (see Sky High for a hoot) and steals this one with his under-the-radar charm and easy everyguy amiability. “How good is your kung fu?” Lu Yan asks Jason just after they meet. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that Angarano’s kung-fu is very good indeed.

MPAA: rated PG-13 for sequences of martial arts action and some violence

viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
  • Cool. Sounds like a lot of fun. I may have to check it out.

    Now, about Darwinism…

    *runs away fast!*

  • I loved this movie. I noticed the Wizard of Oz thing too (how could you not?) and it made it a lot more fun. It was a little cheesy, but not in a bad way. The most fun I’ve had at the cinema in a while.

  • amanohyo

    If you really like kung fu movies, this won’t leave any kind of lasting impression. It’s so light and breezy, it’s downright bland. The nods to The Wizard of Oz, SW and LOTR, The Bride with White Hair (which gets namedropped), and *shudder* Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, struck me more as laziness than cleverness.

    Almost no character development, instantly forgettable fight scenes, practically every joke falls flat, poor Jet Li is forced to speak English once again, and it’s all topped off with a poor script that feels juvenille and rushed. John Fusco should stick to writing scripts for children’s movies, which I suppose this kinda is.

    But my expectations were low, and the movie did somehow barely manage to reach them (probably because Jet Li is a goofy monkey with blond sideburns). On the plus side, Michael Angarano did an awesome job with what he was given, Liu Tifei’s character was cool if underutilized, and the CG wasn’t too obnoxious.

    Just wanted to give a warning to snobby kung fu fans, even though it’s Jackie and Jet, lower your expectations, then lower them a little more. Lots of wire work, close shots, fast cuts, and forgettable martial arts await you. Using shots from far superior movies in the opening credits was a bad idea; this flavorless homage suffers in comparison.

    If Crouching Tiger or Hero was your intro to the genre and/or you thought the “kung fu” in the Charlie’s Angels, Matrix, and Rush Hour movies was super cool, ignore everything I just wrote. If you love movies like Fist of Legend, Fong Sai Yuk, Drunken Master II, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Born Invincible, you’re better off renting this one.

  • amanohyo

    My wife has just informed me that the average person does not enjoy multiple five-fifteen minute fight scenes and that it was silly of me to hope for one at the end of a modern, mainstream movie like The Forbidden Kingdom.

    To that I can only respond, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. I don’t care how old they are, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. But she has a point, I guess the average movie goer isn’t a kung fu geek and these fights are thrilling enough. It’s still pretty ironic that Michael Angarano’s character would most likely be horribly disappointed by his own movie.

  • pedro

    oh man…this is not a bad movie, but it’s such a mishmash of references. halfway through the movie, i was going a mile a minute. oh, look, there’s Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon! There’s Gremlins! There’s Karate Kid! oh, and there, that’s LOTR!

    michael angarano’s character is basically daniel larusso, and the old chinese guy seems to be trying his darndest to channel pat morita…

    but everything became better once jackie chan (literally) ambled on stage. and of course, the minute jackie chan opens his mouth, it’s funny.

    still, this movie is a bit hurt by wearing its references so clearly up its sleeve.

  • pedro

    but oh man, that Li/Chan scene was AWESOME! how can you say they’re not the stars of the movie!?

    also, why is angarano acting EXACTLY like shia lebeouf? shia is good at playing the wide-eyed kid. angarano…not so much.

  • amanohyo

    That Li/Chan scene was one of the greatest letdowns in the history of kung fu movies. Here’s a list of the most common ways to make a fight interesting:

    1) Physical grace, athleticism, rhythm
    2) Change of weapons and/or fighting Style
    3) Change of environment/setting
    4) Change of physical or mental condition
    5) Crucial information revealed during the fight
    6) Change of combatants
    7) A lengthy shot ending with an original move
    8) Novel use of non-weapon props
    9) Uncertain outcome
    10) Unexpected/counterintuitive fighter or style
    11) Unexpected change of pace
    12) Interesting and/or funny dialogue
    13) Hazardous arena
    14) Time limit imposed by MacGuffin
    15) Innovative camera shot(s)
    16) Audience participation
    17) Uneven matchup

    And many more I can’t think of right now. No fight uses all of these obviously, and many actors can’t pull off more than a couple, but a good fight choreographer like Yuen Woo-Ping (given skilled martial artists like Chan and Li) always nails #1, and then picks seven or eight other things from the list to include in every fight. Yuen used to understand this; I don’t know what the hell happened to him during this movie that made him forget how to film an interesting fight.

    For whatever reason, he phoned it in, and the result is a crime against all the loval fans who have waited decades to see this matchup. This was a fight that could potentially have been in the top five easily, but it won’t even make a top forty list now. Why? Whyyyyyyyyy!? (I’m on my knees, shaking my fists to the heavens)

    But… I’m glad you enjoyed it. =)

  • pedro

    admittedly, not too experienced in kung-fu-fighting.

    but i thought it rocked. it was 1’000 times better than anything on that overhyped piece of crap, crouching tiger hidden dragon.

  • amanohyo

    Not gonna argue with you there. The only big-name actors in CthD who had extensive experience in martial arts movies were Yeoh and Cheng Pei Pei.

    But we’re supposed to believe that they can both be defeated by freakin’ Chow Yun Fat and Zhang Ziyi? The latter two are hard-working actors, but a couple months of training, and all the wires, legendary swords, close shots, and CG in the world is no substitute for years of training.

    You can see it in this movie too. Michael Angarano obviously worked really hard to prepare for this role, but his movements are sluggish and wooden next to even the stuntmen that he is supposed to be defeating. Even in his fight with Morgan Benoit (the bully from the “real” world), it’s clear that Benoit’s movements are a lot more fluid.

    But again, I didn’t hate the movie or the fights – it’s just that if someone tells you that Yuen Woo-Ping is going to choreograph a fight between Jackie Chan and Jet Li, you can’t help but pile on the expectations.

  • amanohyo

    Only Michiko Nishiwaki, Yukari Oshima, Cynthia Rothtrock, and Moon Lee can wash away my disappointment. None of them have a quarter of the talent of Jackie or Jet, but I really miss their cheesy 80’s hong kong movies. *sniff* Mmeeeeemories…

  • pedro

    the only scene i liked in CthD was the one between the two ladies (yeoh and zhang), later spoofed in asterix.

    as for angarano, the reason he is so sluggish is because he *can’t* kung fu fight. he only learns it in the forbidden kingdom. but yeah, Jet Li kicked his ass seven ways to sunday in three seconds.

    also, the movie gets much better once it gets past the 45 minute mark, does it not? or is it just me? it’s like that scene with jackie and jet divides the waters. okay movie before, rollicking movie afterwards.

  • pedro

    also, i’ve always been a jackie chan guy, but watching this movie it is abundantly clear that jet li is the superior fighter of the two. you need only watch the climactic scene for evidence. jackie does next to nothing. li kicks all sorts of ass.

  • pedro

    silly me. jackie ISN’T in the climactic scene, duh!

  • pedro


    i’m watching this movie online, commenting as i go. turns out jackie is there after all. just not in the beginning, when Li is kicking all that ass.

  • MaryAnn

    Pedro, why are you watching this movie online?

  • amanohyo

    Yeah, you actually seem to have enjoyed it – isn’t it reasonable to reward the hard-working people involved with some of your sweet, sweet moola? You gotta vote with your wallet if you want to see similar projects get greenlighted in the future.

  • pedro

    you are right.

    i was curious about it, though. but the print i saw was so icky, i’m actually thinking of seeing it again in the theater.

  • MaryAnn

    i was curious about it, though.

    *bangs head on desk*

    You really don’t get it, Pedro, do you?

    Everyone who saw the movie was curious about it. Curiosity is not a justification for theft.

  • pedro

    calm down. i stole nothing – not this time.

    i just happened to find it on a blog or a forum or something and i snuck a peek at it.

    bottom line: i wasn’t *looking* for it specifically.

  • MaryAnn

    *continues banging head on desk*

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