- Jet Li ... The Monkey King/The Silent Monk
- Michael Angarano ... Jason Tripitikas
- Jackie Chan ... Lu Yan/Old Hop
- Collin Chou ... Jade Warlord
- Yifei Liu ... Golden Sparrow/Chinatown Girl
- Bingbing Li ... Ni Chang (White Witch)
Written by John Fusco (Young Guns, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Hidalgo). Directed by Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little, The Lion King). Released April 4, 2008.
Through the Gate that Is No Gate
Jason Tripitikas is finding that his one passion, martial arts films, aren't helping him much on the tough streets of South Boston. In fact they're only making him more of a target for the local racist thugs, who strongarm Jason into helping them rob the store of his Chinatown friend Old Hop (Jackie Chan). When Old Hop is shot, he passes to Jason an ancient Chinese staff and charges him with returning it to its rightful owner.
Fleeing the thugs Jason falls from a rooftop, and awakens in the Middle Kingdom during the brutal 500-year reign of the immortal Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). There he learns the staff's rightful owner is a great and mischievous warrior, the Monkey King (Jet Li), who was locked in stone by the Jade Warlord centuries ago. To his dismay he is told by a drunken monk, Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), that legend foretells of a Seeker who bears the staff through many hardships to the palace of the Warlord himself, where the Monkey King will be revived and the Warlord defeated.
Soon they are joined by the Silent Monk (Jet Li), who has sought the Seeker for untold years, and the Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), who seeks vengeance for the Warlord's destruction of her village. The monks, after battling each other, join forces to teach Jason kung fu and guide him on the journey. The Warlord, meanwhile, hears the Seeker has arrived and sends a bounty hunter (Bingbing Li), a witch who hates all men.
The J&J Project
Unfortunately, The Forbidden Kingdom isn't about the characters played by Li and Chan at all. It's about Jason, the character played by Michael Angarano (Sky High) in a storyline that's classic American boyhood wish fulfillment. He goes to a strange and mystical land, learns kung fu (hopeless at the outset, he suddenly gets really good as their journey is ending, just in time to fend off the entire Jade Army), meets a proud and beautiful young woman (though he doesn't get too far with the Sparrow before things come to as head), and best of all returns home with his newfound skills and maturity intact.
Outside the fight scenes this reduces Chan to the role of drunken wisecracker. Li, who doesn't have an established shtick, is even further disserviced: We get only the sketchiest idea of his past, his motivations, or his goals (though there is an admittedly cool partial explanation for this at the very end of the film).
We're left to admire the scenery (filmed largely on location in Heng Dian, China) and wait for the next fight. Appropriately, given that the starting point is Jason's fantasies, the plot is a pastiche of preexisting films, novels, and legends, most familiar to aficionados: Journey to the West supplies Jason's last name, Tripitikas, and some elements of the Jade Warlord; The Bride with White Hair (nicely name-checked early on as one of the bootleg DVDs Jason gets from Old Hop) furnishes the White Witch, complete with bullwhip hair; and so on. It's as if the producers were offering a sampler platter of real Hong Kong films that bolder audience members might be willing to try the next time they visit. For me, this best-of compilation, though fun at times (I always enjoy seeing the Bride character), was a reminder that this film was packaged, not invented.
So what about the fight scenes? They're good but not the best I've seen, even in an American-made film. Choreographed by the famous Woo-ping Yuen (Fearless, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, The Matrix), the fight scenes are professionally superb but oddly lacking in drama. Compared to his superior work (just think of the brilliant fight between Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger), the fights in The Forbidden Kingdom feel like exercises. (Chan said that work the fight scenes with Li was extremely comfortable, because their rhythms meshed and the moves fell like clockwork: Great for Chan and Li, but that comfort dulls an edge for us.)
Gags But not Greatness
The whole production has this same problem, of falling short of greatness. The battle in the grove of flowering trees, for example, which in Crouching Tiger or House of Flying Daggers would have been lyrical and richly beautiful, is here just a battle in the middle of some flowering trees. The movie is good to look at, and because Chan can effortlessly engage audiences as well as fellow characters it's a good time (there are some great gags, including the Silent Monk helping Lu Yan make rain the desert), but ultimately it feels like a missed opportunity.
That's because The Forbidden Kingdom rests not on the seasoned shoulders of Chan and Li but on the sweet but still-green Angarano, who's mastered several variations of his "Oh wow" face but has yet to find within himself the gravitas of a leading actor. (He has it in him: given his fresh-faced, Disney origins and obvious talent, Angarano could be the next Kurt Russell.) Meanwhile one can only hope that the next time Li and Chan work together, they're able to wrangle their own movie.