Martial arts movies have always blown hot and cold for me. Unlike Clarence Worley in True Romance, I’m not obsessed with these movies, and honestly I haven’t seen many. Recently, there have been some major releases to hit American cinemas, including Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. One of my criticisms of these films is that they take themselves way too seriously.
Fortunately, this is not a problem with The Forbidden Kingdom.
It’s clear while watching this movie that it was made explicitly to finally give Jackie Chan and Jet Li a chance to go head-to-head with martial arts action. To that end, it is a spectacular film. Outside of that, you have to be in on the joke to really enjoy it.
The film follows a teenager who is magically transported to feudal China to help rescue the Monkey King from imprisonment by a warlord. Along the way, he enlists help from a drunken kung fu master (Chan) and a mysterious monk (Li). They also get a hand from an orphaned girl bend on killing the warlord herself.
Like the few martial arts epic films I’ve seen in recent years, this has a relatively simple plot. You need that sort of thing to allow yourself to digress with extended fight sequences. Additionally, this has some brilliant scenery and cinematography, as well as pretty slick production design.
What makes The Forbidden Kingdom stand out is its levity. It’s much more in the spirit of Jackie Chan than Jet Li, and I got the distinct feeling that Li was thrilled to finally have a chance to be a little goofy in front of the camera. He’s not as slick with his silliness as Chan, but he definitely seemed to have fun in the role.
This movie kept me on my toes. Every time I thought it was getting too serious for its own good, the film gives a wink and a nod to the audience to let them know that it still has a sense of humor. This, and the fact that the modern-day parallel story seems a bit out of place, gives The Forbidden Kingdom a feel that is unique among martial arts imports.
The story is really about Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), who is the key to giving the Monkey King his power back. However, the kid is sent to the background once Jackie Chan and Jet Li enter the picture. Still, the beginning and end of the movie has a feeling similar to that of The Neverending Story, which bridges a gap between the real world and a child’s fantasy-turned-reality.
After seeing the film at an advance screening, I was kicking myself that I didn’t bring my kids with me. While it doesn’t necessarily look this way from the advertising campaign, The Forbidden Kingdom would work as a family film. Even though it carries a PG-13 rating, this is done entirely for the martial arts action and violence. And any parent will tell you that a routine viewing of the Power Rangers has this in it.
The key to the success of this movie is that the filmmakers brought themselves in on the joke with the audience. If they didn’t, the film would have been tedious. But as it stands, it serves well as both a martial arts action piece and an irreverent, tongue-in-cheek look at its own genre.
THE UPSDIE: It was awesome to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li go toe-to-toe.
THE DOWNSIDE: The film runs a little long at times.
ON THE SIDE: I almost pulled a muscle just watching the moves.