Forbidden Kingdom is an odd duck of a fantasy movie. It’s an adaptation of (part of) the classic Chinese novel Journey To The West, with a few borrowed characters from some popular wuxia novels and films. It’s full of excellent martial arts action punctuated by “chi magic,” which makes the action that much more amazing (it’s also the reason I’m allowed to count this as heroic fantasy and review it for the S&M column). It’s also the story of a white kid learning to stand up for himself and, uh…why was there a white kid in this movie?
Let’s go back a bit, here. This movie was advertised as a bit of Chinese mythology where Jackie Chan and Jet Li, the biggest names in martial arts, would face off for the first time. What we started with was a dream sequence where a nearly unrecognizable Jet Li kicks a bunch of ass as the Monkey King. Then, we spend the next several minutes hanging out with Bostonian Jason Tripitikas. Jason’s surname, mentioned maybe once in the movie, is another name for Xuanzang the Traveler, the protagonist of Journey to the West. Jason (played by some dude who used to date Kristen Stewart) is a big fanboy of kung fu movies, and as such has befriended an elderly pawn shop owner who sells a lot of kung fu movies. The shop owner is played by a nearly unrecognizable Jackie Chan. Some unrealistically evil teenagers pick on Jason, force him to get them into the pawn show after hours, and then shoot the pawn shop owner while robbing him. His (apparent) dying wish is that Jason return a staff to its rightful owner. So, he picks it up and runs is magically transported either to ancient China or another dimension or something. It isn’t explained, nor is it explained how he can communicate with the natives, aside from Lu Yan (also Jackie Chan) telling him “you’re not listening!” Seriously, that’s all it takes to learn the language. I guess if I listen hard enough, I can learn any language within a few minutes.
After that irritation of an opening, the movie becomes a whole lot more worthwhile, and the plot actually begins. Jason becomes a sort of Chosen One who has to deliver a staff to the Monkey King (who is never called by his actual name, Son Wukong) in order to end the reign of the evil Jade Warlord/Emperor. Jackie Chan’s character (the drunken immortal Lu Yan) and the love interest assassin lady, Golden Sparrow (played by Liu Yifei) begin a journey to the west. They’re eventually joined by a mostly silent monk, played by Jet Li. This monk is actually an avatar of the Monkey King, and it’s set up really well, so that when the reveal comes, it doesn’t feel too predictable or too out of the blue.
So, our four heroes set off on a journey to the west. On the way, Jason is trained in kung fu, learns of Sparrow’s tragic past, learns the true meaning of friendship and irritates the piss out of everyone. Meanwhile, our heroes are pursued by the awesome white haired assassin Ni-Chan (played by Li BingBing), who is hoping to be granted eternal life by the Jade Emperor, in exchange for the staff. In the end, the good guys win in a thrilling climax. Then, the movie decides to go on and send Jason “back home” where he can finally defeat the bullies from the beginning and kind-of-sort-of be reunited with Golden Sparrow, I guess.
This movie is an interesting thing to me, given how uneven it is. The kung fu action is awesome and beautiful to behold, the scenery is gorgeous, and the characters…well, they’re sort of developed. This isn’t a moving character piece, but the characters’ motivations and personalities are shown properly and competently. I found myself caring about their quest, even though it has no bearing on the “real world” as far as I know. And the Jet Li/Jackie Chan fight in the middle is goddamned amazing. It’s hard not to gush like a 10 year old fanboy over it, even if you’re only vaguely aware of them.
If there is a real criticism of this section (which makes up the majority of the film) it’s that the character of Jason keeps wearing his American-ness on his sleeve. For example, when Golden Sparrow watched the clouds with Jason, she sees a dragon. Jason sees the Big Green Monster, which, for the record, looks nothing like a dragon. Everything he says, aside from whining about not knowing kung fu, is some affirmation that he’s an American kid from Boston, as if we needed reminding. The only other issue is that some of the Chinese actors aren’t all that good at speaking in English, so their line delivery is sometimes a bit off. You can’t really fault them, though.
But that beginning section, and the end…any time the movie isn’t set in China, it’s garbage. I could not stand Jason and could not care about his problems. I could not find a redeeming thing about him. He’s weak, annoying, and was willing to sell out the whole world to save his friend who is immortal. Unless you believe that loyalty to your friends is more important than the freedom of the entire world, this is a stupid, stupid action.
The movie seems to be an advertisement aimed at Westerners for Chinese (and especially Hong Kong) cinema, and wuxia as a genre. After all, the “star” is a kung fu fanboy, Jackie Chan is playing his drunken master character in all but name, Golden Sparrow is basically Golden Swallow from Come Drink With Me, and the white haired villain Ni-Chan is based on Lian Nichan from Baifa Monü Zhuan, later adapted into popular TV show Romance of the White Haired Maiden and the hit film The Bride With White Hair. That is in addition to the inclusion of popular mythological characters Sun Wukong the Monkey King and the Jade Emperor, a god who is killed by some American douchebag (spoilers). But the thing is, that goal would have been much better served without that American douchebag. Every Westerner (and I’m fairly confident that I’m 100% accurate here) who saw this movie saw it primarily for Jackie Chan fighting Jet Li, not for some Yankee kid. It was such a missed opportunity on that front. Now, if they went with the initial idea (a Chinese American kid finding his roots through this story) that would have been better, assuming the actor they found wasn’t a massive twat. An even better idea might have been to make an actual adaptation of Journey to the West, or at least the parts that people like. Good thing that’s actually happening this year. I only hope it’s released on this side of the world.
All in all, this was a well made, well paced, and well directed movie with a horrible movie stuffed into it. The great movie was enough to make this a passing grade, but it’s not really out of the “mediocre” range. It did, however, inspire me to look for Come Drink With Me and Bride With The White Hair, so that’s good. If I do find those films at a reasonable price, expect reviews. As for this one, 6 missed opportunities out of 10.