Forbidden Kingdom, The

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It pains me to note that The Forbidden

Kingdom has the feeling of a valedictory about it. The film is a

generally westernized recitation of archetypal martial-arts legends

and themes that uses an alternate-realities hook to palm off its main

character arc on Michael Angarano, a good-looking kid who comes off as a variation on a theme by Shia

LaBeouf, in a bid to give a generation of teenaged American

moviegoers a point of emotional entrée to the story of the

Asian other. That director Rob Minkoff had the sense to retain the

great Asian martial-arts choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping and lyrical

cinematographer Peter Pau is to his credit – they give the

film notes of beauty and authenticity that play against the inevitable Hollywood gloss slathered across the story (think

Karate Kid: The Next Generation) and characters.


Kids may get a lot out of this. If

you’re 12 years old, and you sort of know that Jackie Chan and Jet Li

are cool dudes but haven’t yet acquired their DVD-pressed backstories, The Forbidden Kingdom may amaze and delight you. If it inspires you to seek out its forebears (try The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk, Drunken Master 2 if you can find it in its original-language version, and maybe the Pau-shot The Bride With White Hair,

which screenwriter John Fusco specifically references) it could open up

a whole new world of moviewatching. Minkoff’s direction is kind of pat,

although I give him and Fusco props for declining to work in the

aggressively hip, snarky mode that infests too many family films these

days.(Also, there’s a startlingly lowbrow joke involving a prayer for

rain that I wouldn’t expect in a Hollywood adventure; it really does

feel like the kind of goofy throwaway gag you’d find in an Asian

martial-arts film.)

The film’s imagery is

wonderful, with intense colors, elaborate costumes and sets, and solid Chinese

location work (Peter Pau returns to the bamboo forest in Anji where he shot

that wonderful scene in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Jackie Chan has as

charming a screen presence as ever, even if he’s slowed down a lot over the

years. Jet Li is pretty dour as The Silent Monk, but his dual role as the

legendary Monkey King gives him the opportunity to indulge in some weirdly playful physical

humor. Finally, the supporting characters Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei) and Ni

Chang (Li Bingbing) are strong women on both sides of the good/evil demarcation

— although Hong Kong cinema hasn’t been short on compelling female characters,

American movies can sure use more of them.

It takes a while for the elements to gel, but once they do, The Forbidden Kingdom

becomes surprisingly engaging. By the time the film’s bookend structure

brought it around to there’s-no-place-like-home territory, I was

starting to wonder why on earth, given the chance to live in a magical

realm with Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and the beautiful Liu Yifei, young

Jason would choose instead to return to his Boston home.I would have liked to stick around — the climax relied on too much textbook VFX spectacle, but

this is that rare popcorn film that might have been improved by

retaining a few more minutes of character and story development.

I was prepared to pillory Minkoff for

having no apparent clue how to shoot a fight scene – where to place

the camera, how long to resist inserts and other cutaways – when I

realized that, shooting Jet Li in his 40s and Jackie Chan in his

mid-50s (!), he might have had no other choice. So The Forbidden

Kingdom

is an oddity – a martial-arts film where the fight scenes

are shot largely in close-ups and medium shots, with the participants

cropped off at the waist or neck. (Jackie even has the occasional

obvious stunt double.) Yes, there is a fight scene where the two

legends face off, and it’s fun to watch. But The Forbidden Kingdom

doesn’t feel like a martial-arts film. The rhythms are wrong, the

physical acrobatics never as breathtaking as they should be. True,

director Brett Ratner more egregiously misappropriated Jackie Chan’s

cop-movie career when he reduced those punchy action cocktails to sugar

water in the lucrative Rush Hour series. But where Rush Hour was a cash-in, The Forbidden Kingdom

is a deliberate and loving homage. In some ways, it’s an effective eulogy for the

joyous, romantic style of filmmaking that was Hong Kong pop cinema in

the 1990s. And in others, it’s the bland globalization of wushu movie

styles finally made complete. I’m not sure exactly how I feel about that. B-

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