The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

Rating: ***
Release Date: 4/18/08
Director: Rob Minkoff
Cinematography: Peter Pau
Martial Arts Choreography: Yuen Woo Ping, Yuen Chueng Yan
Cast: Michael Angarano, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Ngai Sing (Collin Chou), Yifei Liu, Li Bing Bing

Imprisoned in stone for five hundred years, the Monkey King (Jet Li) awaits the prophesied return of his magical staff. His deliverance comes in the form of a Hong Kong movie buff named Jason (Michael Angarano) who gets magically transported from his home in modern day Boston to the ancient mystical World Of Martial Arts. There, he meets up with a drunken immortal named Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), a wandering monk (Jet Li), and a vendetta driven young woman named Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu). Chan and Li begrudgingly agree to teach Jason kung fu in order to aid him in his quest, which ultimately leads to a showdown against the ruthless Jade Warlord (Ngai Sing).

Whatever else this film may be, it will go down in history as the first (and quite possibly only) film to feature Hong Kong action legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li onscreen together. Fifteen years ago, at the top of their game, this unthinkable team-up could never have happened due to the politics, egos, and culture of the Hong Kong film industry. How sad that only Hollywood could succeed in bringing them together as supporting characters in this bizarre take on Chinese folklore.

The most frustrating aspect of the film is that it offends the target audience with its heavy handed bludgeoning of Western sensibilities. The inclusion of Michael Angarano's annoying "stranger in a strange land" character is insulting and only succeeds in spoiling the suspension of disbelief. Whenever he's onscreen, it forces the viewer back into reality, which isn't where the viewer wants to be. We don't care about him or his journey - we only care about the fantasy world that he's in. The producers are either clueless or have no respect for the audience (or both).

A strong argument for the "clueless" viewpoint is in the choice of directors. An epic Chinese kung fu period piece being helmed by the guy who directed "The Haunted Mansion" (2003) and "Stuart Little 2?" This has disaster written all over it. Thankfully, he was able to make good use of veterans of the genre including Yuen Woo Ping, Yuen Cheung Yan, and Peter Pau. No doubt Jackie Chan and Jet Li offered their input as well. The film is beautiful to watch, and Peter Pau's cinematography is breathtaking. Yuen Woo Ping's choreography is slick as always, and having masters like Chan, Li, and Sing execute it is like watching poetry in motion. The highlight of the film is when Chan and Li first meet and have a duel in a remote temple. Playing to each actor's strengths, it showcases a delightful variety of fighting styles including several Shaolin animal forms and drunken boxing. My only complaint is that the editing is a bit too kinetic, obscuring the delicious action for the sake of pacing. Still, a fine looking and exciting piece of work from some of the best in the business. The music score is appropriately dramatic and does an excellent job of complementing the setting. It's also quite a treat to see the stunning Li Bing Bing ("Silver Hawk" (2004) ) in action as an evil white-haired witch, and she gets into several nicely staged fights with nearly all of the principals. And then there's Michael Angarano, who is doomed to be criticized and disliked. He does an excellent job with the material, but the very presence of his character undermines the enjoyment of the film.

Ultimately, I think the film is trying to reach a mainstream audience with its Westernized "Chinese Folklore 101" approach. While this may be a treat for the uninitiated, it alienates and insults the existing fan base for all of the talents that are involved. In many ways it reminds me of Ronny Yu's "Warriors Of Virtue" (1997) with its Hollywood mindset that it's inconceivable for audiences to comprehend a fantasy film unless it has at least one completely out of place American character to identify with (which of course ruins the fantasy aspect and grounds the film in reality). Definitely enjoyable, but the low-brow approach leaves a bitter aftertaste.