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The Forbidden Kingdom   C+

Lionsgate / The Weinstein Company

Year Released: 2008
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Rob Minkoff
Writer: John Fusco
Cast: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Colin Chou, Liu Yifei, Li Bing Bing, Michael Angarano, Morgan Benoit.

Review by Rob Vaux

The central flaws in The Forbidden Kingdom actually boil down to conceptual decisions rather than subpar filmmaking. As such, they are more subject to the vagaries of opinion than, say, an Uwe Boll film, whose stinkiness can be objectively quantified. In the case of The Forbidden Kingdom, the problem stems from screenwriter John Fusco's stated purpose of showing a Chinese wuxia epic from the perspective of a 21st-century white kid. Why? What does a piece of mythic Asian storytelling need with a contemporary American in the mix? If a teenager is needed, why not use one appropriate to the period, or at least from modern China instead of halfway around the world? The obvious answer is because it won't play in Peoria unless the main character is Anglo... a sad and troubling testament to how much we still have to learn.

None of that is The Forbidden Kingdom's fault, of course. The film simply reaps the unseemly rewards as Boston kung-fu nut Jason Tripitkas (Michael Angarano) struggles his way through ugly encounters with bullies and girls who think he's weird before a golden staff in an old curio shop whisks him off to mystic lands far away. There, the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) has defied the mandate of heaven by... well, by pretty much doing what evil warlords do. The staff belongs to the imprisoned Monkey King, currently decorating the Warlord's palace as a statue but able to put a stop to all that heinous mandate defying if only someone will free him. So off Jason goes, joined by a trio of companions -- the mysterious Silent Monk (Jet Li), the drunken martial arts master Lu Yan(Jackie Chan), and the vengeance-obsessed Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu) -- to set things right.

Toto and Scarecrow were dropped from the project after demanding excessive residuals on the back end.

The familiarity of the scenario belies the fact that The Forbidden Kingdom still does a pretty good job of hitting all the proper marks. The Chinese landscapes are suitably gorgeous, the plot is unencumbered by excessive complexity, and the message of inner wisdom and making peace with who you are is serviceable (if hardly groundbreaking). Li and Chan -- onscreen together for the first time -- make a fine bickering duo, with the calm stoicism of the former contrasting well with the latter's knockabout charm. The fight choreography from legendary master Yuen Woo-Ping measures up to his very high standards, and watching it in conjunction with two such revered martial artists is almost worth the price of admission alone. Director Rob Minkoff wisely keeps his fingers out of the pie during such moments, setting his cameras in the right spot and letting the boys do their thing.

No, the difficulty with The Forbidden Kingdom stems almost solely from Jason's intrusive presence in the proceedings. It's not Angarano's fault: he's likeable enough and his own martial arts skills are decent, if nowhere near the level of his co-stars. But the film's fairy-tale atmosphere comes crashing to a halt whenever he cracks some contemporary witticism or talks wistfully about Fenway and the Red Sox; it simply doesn't belong there. The framing device in modern-day Boston entails sad (and unnecessarily brutal) contrivances of the Karate Kid variety, lifted wholesale from too many other films and brought clunking down where they clearly have no place. It renders the overall impression phony and hollow: a cereal-box package masquerading as authenticity. You may not feel the vague sense of unease that I did at appropriating Chinese settings and figures in the cause of American self discovery, but the jarring clash in tone prevents the film from adequately selling its key concepts.

In box-office terms, that may have been necessary. The need to avoid scaring anyone off -- to present the story in English and "connect" with viewers who can't stand to see anyone Not Them onscreen -- will likely improve the bottom line, and if the film does well, other directors may be able to push such limits further. But the conceit still proves too much for this movie's slight structure to overcome. One would hope that the likes of Crouching Tiger, and even Chan's own English-language hits, could open a few more eyes than they apparently did. The straightforward variation of the Hero's Journey presented here needs more loyalty to its source, even if that means selling a few less tickets to do so. By watering it down to make it more palatable, the most worthwhile elements are inadvertently undone. Does the fault for that lie with the filmmakers or the audience? I'm inclined to cite the latter, but whatever the answer, The Forbidden Kingdom ends up paying the price.

Review published 04.17.2008.

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