a critiQal film review The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

  • DVD
  • Blu-Ray

Plot: An American teenager (Angarano) who is obsessed with Hong Kong cinema and kung-fu classics makes an extraordinary discovery in a Chinatown pawnshop: the legendary stick weapon of the Chinese sage and warrior, the Monkey King (Li). With the lost relic in hand, the teenager unexpectedly finds himself traveling back to ancient China to join a crew of warriors from martial arts lore on a dangerous quest to free the imprisoned Monkey King.

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With the long-awaited Robert De Niro/Al Pacino team-up now in theaters, it seems appropriate another dynamic duo should be appearing on DVD this past week – namely Jackie Chan and Jet Li – in The Forbidden Kingdom.

Would the Jackie Chan/Jet Li team-up martial arts fans have been waiting for live up to expectations, or would The Forbidden Kingdom be a major disappointment for their fans?

Jackie Chan, taking a lot of cues from his Legend Of Drunken Master character, plays his character with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor. It’s not the over-the-top comedy he’s displayed in, say, – instead, it’s a glimmer of a smile always waiting just around the corner.

It’s a little more subtle than what viewers are used to with Chan (the eye-popping routines from his cartoon show, “Jackie Chan Adventures,” aren’t usually that far off from the real-life expressions) and will be much appreciated by viewers. It’s an infectious feeling, and viewers will be happy to grin right along with him instead of laughing at his normally over-the-top, expressions.

Jet Li, on the other hand, has been hard-pressed in previous films to even crack a smile that doesn’t look painful, and that doesn’t change in The Forbidden Kingdom. His character is concentrated solely on completing his mission, andd doesn’t have time for fun and games. That personality works well for Li in the long run (as the movie proves out later on), but a bit more humor from Li would have been nice – especially when he and Jackie are fighting over the apprentice.

Michael Angarano, leaving the hallowed halls of , goes for a different type of hero in The Forbidden Kingdom. While he’s supposed to look largely out of place, his journey through the film isn’t as captivating as the one he went through in and will leave the viewer feeling a little disappointed.

While his journey from apprentice to a real martial arts practicioner leaves a lot to be desired. With so many films going through the same motions, viewers expect something a bit different these days. Gone are the days of Rocky when a training montage was high cinema – now it’s been done so much it’s become a cliche (a cliche exploited quite well a few years ago in the musical episode of “Buffy The Vampire Slayer”).

The journey starts off well, as Jackie Chan and Jet Li use Angarano to test out various styles they can train him in (and slap him around quite a lot in the process) in a comical sequence, but ends up falling back on the ol’ training montage later on (Angarano beats on bamboo poles as the music rises in the background). It’s unfortunate, as viewers will most likely groan as they recognize the cliche, and distance themselves a bit from the movie, thinking it may soon spill completely over into cheesy.

The “relationship” that develops between Angarano and Liu Yifei’s Golden Sparrow character never really gets off the ground either, making it seem largely like just a waste of film. There are a few spurts and false starts, then suddenly they are deeply in love. It doesn’t make any sense, and the wrap-up of that relationship is predictable almost from the first scene Yifei appears in. If they were going to do such a haphazard and sloppy job with the relationship, they should have left it out completely – the film is only hurt by the half-hearted attempt.

While the plot seems interesting on paper (especially for an American audience) – the old toss an American into this mystical culture and teach him the ways of this ancient world – Angarano doesn’t quite pull it off as well as viewers would hope. He’s supposed to bring a fish-out-of-water feel to the film, but unfortunately, he can never quite seem to shake that feeling – even when he’s supposed to be more a part of that world. It’s a bit annoying, as it makes Angarano come off as seeming to be the biggest mistake of the film – yet without his character, there would be no film.

This feeling of disappointment for Angarano may be helped by the rather simplistic set-up he has to deal with back in our world. It’s a predictable chain of events, so freeing him – and the viewers – from that simplicity by thrusting him into this new culture is a breath of fresh air for both him and the viewers. Still, most will keep the rather simplistic set-up in the back of their minds, knowing the enjoyment of the new culture will eventually have to end, and the film will have to conclude as simplistically as it started. These dour thoughts may be what keeps the viewer from truly getting into Angarano’s performance, as they will shift some of the blame on that early simplicity – and more of the same they know is to come – squarely onto his shoulders.

Of course, the best parts of the film center around Jackie and Jet. Their martial arts moves are as impressive as ever, and it’s a real treat for fans to see them together in scene after scene. The fans will get everything they want from this Chan/Li team-up, as the two fight both each other and side-by-side. For a fan, what more could they ask for?

It’s just unfortunate the rest of The Forbidden Kingdom isn’t without it’s faults. Still, fans of Chan and/or Li will enjoy this on-screen team-up they’ve long awaited for, despite it’s occasional flaw.

The Forbidden Kingdom is a decent rental for any martial arts fan (and a lot better than Li’s recent ), and will keep most entertained, despite not being quite the masterpiece it could have been.

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