April 17, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom

Stop calling us Messrs. Miyagi

Grade: C +
Director: Rob Minkoff
Starring: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Yifei Liu, and Collin Chou
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 1 hour, 53 minutes

Making the artifice of mythology look even more artificial than it already is, The Forbidden Kingdom is mass-produced martial arts for the fanboy generation. Its claim to pop-culture fame is finally joining icons Jackie Chan and Jet Li together onscreen, but even that conceit, like the rest of this CGI-heavy creation, looks and feels more like a fantasy-based video game than anything close to gripping or even mildly interesting cinema.

Purportedly based upon Journey to the West, one of the Four Great Classical Novel of Chinese literature, Forbidden Kingdom actually comes off more like a wuxai rework of The Wizard of Oz. Jason (Michael Angarano), a young south Bostonian and fan of kung fu classics by the Shaw Brothers and Bruce Lee, is forced into helping rob a kindly Chinatown pawnshop owner (Chan in old-man makeup) by a band of bullies who look and act as though they just stepped out of the Beat It video. When the punks turn on him, Jason is magically teleported to 16th century China with the help of a mystical golden staff, which Jason soon learns he must return to its rightful, imprisoned owner, the Monkey King (Li).

Joining Jason on his journey are a trio of misfit warriors – a drunken beggar (Chan, again), a monk (Li, again), and a comely orphan (Yifei Liu). Along the path through this Oriental Oz to see the evil Jade (or is it Emerald?) Warlord (Collin Chou) – who also covets the staff – our heroes must battle a wicked witch (Li Bingbing), whose every appearance is ushered in by a faux-Morricone steel guitar fanfare. There is the obligatory tea house battle royale, talk of an immortality elixir, and, of course, a family revenge angle. And, under Chan and Li’s joint tutelage, Jason makes the improbable transformation from latter-day Dorothy into The Karate Kid.

Apparently still stuck in his inept Haunted Mansion mode, director Rob Minkoff fashions John Fusco’s already cliché-riddled script into a would-be homage to Hong Kong cinema that ends up more like a dull parody. The rubbery visual effects only detract from otherwise stunning Chinese shooting locations, while Fusco’s lazy dialogue alternates between proverbial mumbo jumbo and incongruous contemporary slang.

Moreover, there is not an emotionally honest or accessible moment in the whole film. Every scene looks as though it was lifted from some other movie, and Minkoff never settles on the right tone, constantly alternating between action, tragedy, and slapstick comedy. Compare the long-awaited Jackie Chan/Jet Li duel – the film's best five minutes even though it comes at least 10 years too late – with a scene in which Li urinates on Chan's face, and The Forbidden Kingdom goes from kung-fu to kung-phew quicker than you can say, "There's no place like home."

Neil Morris

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