Who would’ve known? Rob Minkoff has no doubt proven his versatility as a director with his upcoming action epic, “The Forbidden Kingdom”, which marks the first-time on-screen collaboration between martial arts legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li. As some Disney fanatics may know, Minkoff directed The Lion King, The Haunted Mansion, and both Stuart Little films. How he landed the gig for Kingdom, goes right over my head.
Recently, I acquired tickets to a promotional screening in Los Angeles. According to what I had expected, the wide majority of the audience was Asian – lots of native supporters hoping for an American film that finally does justice to the Hong Kong heavy hitters they’ve all grown up watching. When the reels began to roll, the aspect ratio was noticeably too tall, so 5 minutes into the opening credits, the screen was blacked out a few times until the operator finally fixed it. Phew…
The beginning opens up with a montage of classic martial arts films flashing back and forth across the screen – two of which happen to be pictures of the legendary Bruce Lee. As much as I tried to appreciate the homage, this credits sequence seemed irrelevant to the overall movie and more like a gimmick to draw the audience in. But that was easily forgotten once the actual movie kicked in. To summarize, “The Forbidden Kingdom” is about the Chinese warrior god known as the Monkey King who engages in a duel with an evil Emperor. The Monkey King is turned to stone, while his bo staff is sent shooting into the skies, never to be seen for centuries. Flash forward to the present, when a teenage, martial arts movie fanatic finds himself holding the staff in an antique pawn shop. The staff sends him back in time, where he realizes he must return it to the Monkey King and free the village from the tyrannical rule of the evil Emperor. Along the way, he meets a drunken immortal (Jackie Chan), a monk (Jet Li), and an orphan girl (Yifei Liu) who aid him on his quest to the Emperor’s palace.
The martial arts sequences are breathtaking. Once again, fight choreographer, Yuen Woo-Ping (Iron Monkey, Fearless, The Matrix trilogy), never ceases to wow the audience. Action movies can tend to drag at times between the action scenes, but “The Forbidden Kingdom” jumps right in, and just when the story’s momentum starts to slow down, you’re treated to another thrilling, fast-paced fight scene. What amazed me the most was the variety in styles that Chan and Li both utilized throughout the film – drunken boxing, praying mantis, tiger claw, staff fighting, to name a few. Truly an original work of art.
The locations used for the film are also spectacular as the characters traverse over barren deserts, dense bamboo forests, and picturesque green mountains. Although, I did spot some scenes where matte paintings were used – not to detract from the impressive authenticity of the film.
If I had to assign a rating to the dialogue, I would have to give it 3 1/2 stars out of 5 – which is not great, but not bad at all. There are a few minor moments where some of the characters’ lines seem forced and undeveloped. For example, there’s a moment when Jason (Michael Angarano) and Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu) are pointing out cloud formations and he finds one that looks like “The Green Monster” from Fenway Park. Sparrow obviously has no clue what he’s talking about, so he attempts to compare it to a green dragon. Perhaps John Fusco (writer) was just slothful the night he wrote that page, but he sure makes up for it with some hilarious one-liners. Jackie Chan and Jet Li both deliver some memorable lines and they each have their highlighting moments. When Jason expresses his frustration with Chan during his arduous training, Chan punches him and replies: “That’s a strike. Tomorrow, I teach you block.” Li, on the other hand, has some classic toilet humor which shows that the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, and keeps it a fun ride along the way. I was also highly impressed by how much Chan’s English has by far improved since, say Rush Hour, as he clearly and coherently narrates the entire story of the Monkey King. I really can’t speak for Li though.
Initially, I have to admit, I had some gripes about the film after seeing the previews. Oh, so we have a Caucasian male lead who’s mentored by two supporting Asian roles to save the world and win the desperate heart of an Asian princess? Hmm, I see. Cough…politics…cough. However, contrary to all this, “The Forbidden Kingdom” subdued my complaints when I realized how evenly the screen time is distributed amongst the characters. In no way are Chan and Li’s characters seen as subservient, but rather equally dominant figures and essential, key players in the storyline. Minkoff has demonstrated an honorable respect for these two actors and I give him my highest props for that. I had also read, several months back, an early review on Aint It Cool News where Jason plants a wet one on Golden Sparrow. Apparently, in the final cut (spoiler alert?), he draws back and they never kiss. Whoever had the final say on that change, THANK YOU!!! Sure, it might not contribute a whole lot to finding a cure for this dreadful “Yellow Fever” epidemic that has swept across America, but hey, it’s a start!
So at the end of all that, I give “The Forbidden Kingdom” an A-. Watch it. Enjoy it. Worth the ticket. Not the bootlegging.