Jackie Chan and Jet Li both have long and lustrous careers leading some of the best martial arts action movies in the history of cinema. Therefore, it’s not unfair to have a few expectations when you bring these two fighters into the same movie, like Chan’s death-defying stunts and use of environment or Li’s brutal fighting techniques. Unfortunately, when you take them out of their typical “Rated-R” realm and make them supporting actors, you lose the aspects we know and love them for.
The Forbidden Kingdom revolves around the true Chinese legend of the Monkey King who was a martial arts master that wielded a legendary staff during ancient times. In the movie, he was tricked by the evil Jade Warlord into casting the staff far away before being imprisoned in stone. The Jade Warlord, of course, wants to destroy the staff since it is the key to freeing the Monkey King. (I don’t know where the creative license with the legend begins since I’ve heard a different version.) Anyway, present day rolls around and the staff is discovered by teenager Jason Tripitikas, played by newcomer Michael Angarano. Neighborhood bullies more or less force Jason off a rooftop and the power of the staff magically transports him into ancient and fantastical China where he teams up with Lu Yon (Jackie Chan) and The Silent Monk (Jet Li) to free the Monkey King.
It’s not a serious sounding plot, but execute it well and audiences will take it seriously. Regrettably, the execution falls short from the very beginning, which starts as a dream sequence. The Monkey King is shown leaping from mountain top to mountain top, fighting off groups of attackers, but the Wire-Fu work is lackluster with attackers being felled by gentle taps. In fact, most of the fight scenes involving Chan and Li are kind of boring in that they never take a hit. It’s almost like watching a carefully choreographed dance routine. Once you realize that no one’s in any real danger, the confrontations drag, like Chan’s and Li’s epic duel that many hoped to settle who would win in a fight. Alas.
Michael Angarano is also not charismatic enough at this point of his career to lead this film. His acting is serviceable, but he still comes off as the poor man’s Shia LeBeouf. On a side note, I think it was a mistake to keep his chest hair. Not only was it distracting, but it confused the age of the character.
It also doesn’t help that the writing was silly and half-formulaic. At one point, after having faced no real adversity, a character asks, “We’re not going to make it, are we?” I couldn’t help but think Are we at that point in the film already? Another time a character doubts his ability to which he is told to remember to breathe, but the reply is said so portentously that you expect it to be a factor in the end. Spoiler: It isn’t.
Lastly, the film seems to go in two directions at the same time. It tries to mix adult themes like real world death and sexual domination with fantastic family-friendly coming of age Kung Fu. The result is middle of the road disappointment.
To quote another martial arts master, “Walk on road, hm? Walk left side, safe. Walk right side, safe. Walk middle, sooner or later get squish just like grape.”
Who knew those words could have meaning even here?