Saturday, April 19, 2008

Kung Fu Night! The Forbidden Kingdom

Hey, where can I find one of those Gates That Are No Gates?

The Forbidden Kingdom, directed by Rob Minkoff. Screenplay by John Fusco. Starring Jet Li, Michael Angarano, and Jackie Chan. Casey Silver Productions: 2008. Rated PG-13. USCCB Rating is AIII--Adults.

Read other reviews here.

Yes, the plot is simple yet somehow over-complicated in execution. Yes, the directing is generally poor. Yes, the movie has unnecessary bookends ripped off from The Never Ending Story or something similar. But then again, who cares? It has a wire-fu fight between Jet Li and Jackie Chan, and that's all you need to know.

The movie opens with Jason Triptikas (Michael Angarano), He of the Perpetually Cracking Voice, a good-natured loser of a high school Kung Fu junkie who just wants to watch his Bruce Lee bootlegs and maybe actually go on a date for a change, but he instead gets mixed up with some generic gangster types and witnesses a murder. Fortunately for him, he is at that point sucked into a fantasy version of ancient China where he learns he is the prophesied Seeker (yeah, "Seeker") destined to return a magic staff to the Monkey King (Jet Li), an immortal warrior turned to stone in a battle with the evil Jade War Lord (Collin Chou), whose fancy-pants armor and heavy eyeshadow mark him as a Most Nefarious Villain.

The fish-out-of-water fantasy hero needs a goofy but capable sidekick--enter Lu Yan, played by Jackie Chan, reprising his sloshed comedic warrior role from Drunken Master. The fish-out-of-water fantasy hero also needs a G-rated romantic interest, preferably one who speaks only in third person and is single-mindedly bent on revenging her parents' death--enter Golden Sparrow, played by Yifei Liu. The fish-out-of-water fantasy hero also needs to run into Jet Li, because if he doesn't, the studio can't advertise this as the first Jet Li/Jackie Chan collaboration. Enter the Silent Monk, who has the necessary misunderstanding with Lu Yan, resulting in a lengthy fight sequence.

Now get world-famous martial arts choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen (or Yuen Woo-Ping; I wish Hollywood would make up its mind), add plenty of lavish set designs and special effects, and let the whole thing go.

The movie has major flaws, but I can think of few action movies that don't. The unnecessary plot complications and uneven exposition are the biggest problems, but easy to overlook, especially since the film is consistently gorgeous eyecandy, albeit in a fakey sort of way: most of the sets look computer-generated, and the Kung Fu involves a lot of wire-work. The target audience is martial arts movie enthusiasts, and they should be pleased just to watch Jackie Chan and Jet Li kick the snot out of each other. Although the cinematography could be better, and in several sequences there's too much happening at once for the audience to comfortably follow it, the fighting is great--it definitely got me pumped, though the action doesn't quite give that crush-a-beer-can-against-your-head-and-wail-on-your-air-guitar level of adrenaline rush that you can get from the action sequences in, say, Fearless or Iron Monkey.

Now, as for the central character, Angarano's Jason, there's a lot of negative buzz on the Internet about Hollywood putting in a Caucasian actor in order to attract a Western audience yada yada, but I believe this buzz misses the point. The basic premise of this movie is standard fantasy stuff: somebody geeky from our world gets sucked through a portal into another world where he stops being geeky, fulfills some prophecy, and defeats a supervillain, after which he returns to our world and applies the valuable life lessons he has learned, especially the How to Beat Up Juvenile Delinquents lesson and the How to Win Babes and Influence People lesson. It's escapism designed for people who share attributes with the central character, and on that level, the movie definitely works. The movie is aimed at young American men who love Kung Fu, so naturally the geeky central character is a young American man who loves Kung Fu. This makes perfect sense to me, though I suppose, since Jackie Chan is in the film, the movie could have plausibly starred a suicidal Japanese schoolgirl instead,* but those girls get sucked through these portals at a rate of about one a week. Why should they hog all the fun?

Content Advisory: Contains some crude humor and lots of stylish action violence.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for The Forbidden Kingdom:

Myth Level: High (hero on quest, magic and immortals, pretty typical stuff)

Quality: Medium-High (very beautiful movie with good production values, uneven presentation)

Ethics/Religion: Medium-High (good themes, some crudity, little problematic material)

*According to Eastern Standard Time, two Japanese girls attempted suicide when they learned of Jackie Chan's marriage. One succeeded.
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