by HELEN GEIB
The Forbidden Kingdom is a martial arts fantasy inspired by Chinese folk tales and Hong Kong movies and starring two of the biggest movie stars on the planet, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. It’s movies like this that justify Hollywood’s worldwide market dominance. This is a tremendously entertaining, all-audiences film. Take yourself, take your kids, take your parents. If you’re a fan of Chan or Li, you may want to follow my example and take yourself twice.
Following a brief prologue, the film opens with one of the best title sequences I’ve seen. The credits play over a montage of partially animated posters for classic Hong Kong kung fu and martial arts fantasy films. It’s a lively and delightful sequence in itself and an apt introduction to a movie that is partly homage, partly cultural adaptation, and the first Hollywood film to successfully absorb the Hong Kong moviemaking formula.
Forbidden Kingdom has all the winning elements of the formula that made the Hong Kong film industry a global powerhouse. Teaming Chan and Li for the first time, the movie has star power at maximum wattage. The story is an energetic genre mash-up, moving seamlessly from drama to comedy to action- often within a single scene (so Hong Kong cinema!). The action is choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, a veritable cinema legend for his choreography of the fights in Once Upon a Time in China I and II, several other films that also rank among Li’s best, Iron Monkey, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The Matrix, and Kill Bill.
The film is exceedingly well directed by Rob Minkoff, whose prior credits as a Disney animator and director of Stuart Little and its sequel and The Haunted Mansion give no indication, beyond an aptitude for superior family friendly fare, that he could produce a movie like Forbidden Kingdom. I certainly never suspected he was adept in the Hong Kong visual style.
Hong Kong-style action choreography, more often than not by imported Hong Kong talent, has been a fad in Hollywood since the success of The Matrix. Few of the imitators have shared that film’s respect for their material, either choreography or performance. After years of watching Hollywood action movies butcher great Hong Kong-style action choreography and waste Jet Li’s talents with clumsy direction and hyperactive editing, I very nearly cried tears of joy watching the many splendid, thrilling fight scenes in Forbidden Kingdom. They are well-staged, fluid, comprehensible, filmed with an eye to the comedic or dramatic purpose of the contest, and centered in respect for the talents of the performers.
In other words, the action has the hallmarks of the Hong Kong style and looks nothing at all like a commercial, a video game, or a music video.
Forbidden Kingdom draws on the Hollywood formula for one element that is all too often missing from Hong Kong films, even some of the good ones: a good script. The story skillfully integrates several of the key plots of kung fu and martial arts fantasy films. These are plots that are also cultural universals.
There is a quest (to free the Monkey King, imprisoned by the ruthless and treacherous Jade Warlord); a young man’s coming of age through intensive physical and mental training for a climactic contest (the teenage hero, played by Michael Angarano, becomes the kung fu disciple of Chan and Li’s martial arts masters); and a revenge story (the teenage heroine seeks revenge against the Jade Warlord for the murder of her family). The film has good structure and pacing. The characters are well defined and eminently sympathetic or hateful, as appropriate.
Chan and Li have had mixed track records since coming to Hollywood, making films good, indifferent, and downright awful. This is unquestionably one of the best American films, if not the best, each has made. That is partly because it is overall a very good film, and partly because it is designed to showcase their strengths as actors and as martial artists.
The unfortunate tendency of the Hollywood films has been to typecast Chan as a clown and Li as a stoic warrior and to allow little deviation from that image. Forbidden Kingdom has Chan play the clown, something he does extremely well, but it also has him play the principal mentor to the young hero; he is one half of the film’s key dramatic relationship. Li has a dual role as an itinerant monk and the Monkey King. The monk character has shades of the stoic warrior, but he is too odd to be one-dimensional, and the Monkey King is mischievous, irreverent, vulgar, and irrepressible. Forbidden Kingdom recognizes that Chan and Li are international megastars because each is a unique blend of movie martial arts mastery, personality, acting ability, and unmatched on-screen charisma.
The highest compliment I can pay to young Angarano is that he stands up to Chan and Li individually and when they are playing their very amusing “odd couple” comedy routine. No martial arts fantasy is complete without a good villain, and Forbidden Kingdom boasts two excellent ones. Hong Kong actor Collin Chou plays the Jade Warlord; he’s a fine antagonist for Li in the fight scenes and reads his evil master villain lines with indescribable relish. Chinese actress Li Bingbing is also very fine as a bounty hunter who craves immortality. The part is explicitly modeled on one of the greatest Hong Kong movie characters, the titular character of The Bride with White Hair. It was a fruitful source of inspiration.
Forbidden Kingdom looks wonderful. It’s the admirable result of a union of Chinese folk culture, Chinese landscape painting, Hong Kong martial arts fantasy production design, and Hollywood production values.
In the interests of full disclosure, I will close by acknowledging that the martial arts fantasy is my favorite movie genre, and that seeing Jet Li play the Monkey King fulfills a long-held dream. He’s just as wonderful in the part as I had imagined he would be.