Jackie Chan and Jet Li are karate kings of salvation

by Beacon Staff • April 16, 2008

In an attempt to appeal to both Eastern and Western audiences, films like Ong-Bak: Thai Warrior butcher Asian mythology and culture in the process.,"Oh no, not another kung-fu movie!" Such a sentiment is justifiable, considering the slew of mediocre martial arts flicks that try to crossover to international markets.

In an attempt to appeal to both Eastern and Western audiences, films like Ong-Bak: Thai Warrior butcher Asian mythology and culture in the process. However, The Forbidden Kingdom, though by no means a significant film, manages to entertain with well-choreographed fight sequences and a few humorous moments, even if it does mangle Chinese legends in the process.

The plot is somewhat clunky, its choppiness in dire need of a rewrite, but somehow the movie holds the audience's attention between fight sequences to keep people awake. Most of this can be credited to the two men at the center of the film.

The alternately-charged and clever interactions between famous martial arts masters Jackie Chan and Jet Li are solely responsible for keeping The Forbidden Kingdom from sinking into the quicksand of a mediocre plot and uninspiring acting.

The movie begins in what does not resemble, but what the audience later finds out is supposed to be, South Boston. As a hometown side note, Bostonians will have to bear with an egregious and laughable attempt at an accent towards the end of the film and a pointless reference to the "Green Monster" of Fenway Park: two details that were apparently supposed to enhance the movie's Boston credibility.

In this fantasy version of Beantown, a kung-fu obsessed teenager, Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) witnesses the shooting of an old Chinese pawnshop owner in possession of an ancient staff and, in the course of running away from the gang members responsible, somehow slides off a rooftop and into an ancient Chinese peasant village with the staff.

Conveniently-for the plot, that is-the village is immediately attacked by soldiers of the Jade Warlord for reasons unknown to anyone. Even more appropriately, an inebriated Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) arrives just in time to save Jason. Chan plays his role like the Chinese version of Pirates of the Caribbean's woozy Captain Jack Sparrow -permanently drunk, somewhat clueless and yet somehow able to squeeze out of the trickiest situations. He even has the same ratty hair.

As it turns out, Jason has unwittingly become the Seeker, destined to return the staff to its rightful owner, the Monkey King, who was imprisoned in stone five centuries before by the deceitful Jade Warlord. Only then can Jason return home. The catch is, if he dies in this world, he will be found dead in Boston. This law, however, doesn't apply to everyone, as the film's lazy screenplay breaks its own rules.

However, the Jade Warlord is not about to lose his power easily, and suddenly Jason's lack of any real kung-fu skills becomes a serious problem. Thankfully, Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), an orphan teenage girl with a personal vendetta against the Jade Warlord, joins their motley crew. However, she is given the dullest lines and for some mysterious reason always refers to herself in the third person, which is both distracting and silly.

It's two against one in this tiresome segment until the entrance of The Silent Monk (Jet Li), who tips the balance back towards interesting. The drawn-out fight sequence between Li and Chan is probably the best scene in the entire movie-indeed, the film's strongest moments are its meticulous and graceful fight sequences.

Much of the film's buzz circulates around the fact that this is the first collaboration between martial arts masters Li and Chan and their fighting does not disappoint. Nor, surprisingly, do their conversations, which contain the only good dialogue in the film. The two characters fistfight, trade barbs and even literally piss on each other. On the whole, they are the only reason to recommend the film.

Their so-called "supporting" actors don't add much support to the film. A painfully forced "connection" between Jason and Sparrow is strained because it's evident that the film is hopelessly grappling for some sort of romantic interest between the two, while extra melodrama ("What if I can't do this?") further bogs down the already-struggling plot. Add in an incredibly cheesy ending and one can marvel at exactly how badly this movie would have flopped if not for Li and Chan's mesmerizing moves.

Probably the movie's most interesting message, though, is woven throughout: most Westerners know absolutely nothing about the real nature of kung-fu-especially those who have seen martial arts flicks. Numerous times in the movie Li and Chan poke fun at Jason's supposed "knowledge" of kung-fu when he reels off moves he has seen in the Bruce Lee films he loves.

This, of course, is ironic, considering how often Chan and Li star in such types of crossover movies and the fact that The Forbidden Kingdom falls squarely into that genre. However, that said, the film does nothing to correct any kung-fu stereotypes -it merely perpetrates them.

Barring a shaky plot and a few weak characters, however, The Forbidden Kingdom manages to be an entertaining film thanks to the collaboration of Li and Chan, which will hopefully not be their last.

Let's pray that next time they will have stronger support so they don't have to save the boy, the kingdom and the film all at the same time.