by Mel Valentin
Imagine "The Karate Kid" crossed with "The Wizard of Oz," "The Neverending Story," and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," dumb all of that down to a fourth or fifth grade level, and youíd get something like "The Forbidden Kingdom," a martial arts fantasy as kids cartoon starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li and a cast of relative unknowns. Directed by an obviously-out-of-his element Rob Minkoff ("Stuart Little," "The Lion King") from a derivative, clichť-ridden script by John Fusco ("Hidalgo," "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron," "Loch Ness," "The Babe," "Thunderheart," "Young Guns I and II"), "The Forbidden Kingdom" isnít even saved, let alone elevated, by Chan or Liís presence or legendary martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-pingís ("Fearless," "Kung Fu Hustle," "Kill Bill Vol. I and II," "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon," the "Matrix" trilogy, "Fist of Legend," "Iron Monkey") contribution.Just in case weíre wondering what The Forbidden Kingdom is all about, it opens with a martial arts battle on a mountaintop between the Monkey King (Jet Li) and the forces of the Jade War Lord (Collin Chou), the ruthless, dictatorial ruler of the Forbidden Kingdom. As it turns out, the battle between the Monkey King and the Jade War Lordís army is just the fevered dream of an over-enthusiastic fanboy, Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano). Jason loves martial arts so much that heís lined the walls of his bedroom with posters from famous and not-so-famous martial arts films from the last forty years and watches martial arts films on DVD constantly.
"Why, Mr. Chan? Why, Mr. LI? Why?"
Eager for another fix of martial arts goodness, Jason scurries off to, where else, Chinatown, where he can find bootleg versions of martial arts films. Given his frequent forays to Chinatown and, more specifically, a pawnshop owned by an elderly man, Hop (Jackie Chan), heís well known in his neighborhood for his proclivities. An outsider and loner, Jason attracts the unwanted attention of the neighborhood bully, Lupo (Morgan Benoit), and Lupoís cronies. A beat down later, Jason is back at the pawnshop, this time watching helplessly as Lupo injures Hop. Momentarily brave, Jason runs away with an ancient bow staff. A rooftop chase and fall later, Jason awakens in a medieval Chinese village.
In the village, Jason soon learns that he can understand English. Luckily for Jason, a drunken beggar, Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), saves him just in time from the Jade War Lordís army. Lu Yan informs Jason of a prophecy, of a traveler from a distant land fated to carry the bow staff back to its rightful owner, the Monkey King, on Five Elements Mountain. Thereís a problem with Jason fulfilling the prophecy, though. He has no recognizable physical skills or training in martial arts and he doesnít stand a chance against the Jade War Lord or his army. Lu Yan eventually relents and agrees to guide Jason to Five Elements Mountain (and train him too). Along the way, Jason and Lu Yan meet a taciturn monk, Lan Cai He (Jet Li), with a hidden agenda, and Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), a young woman eager for revenge against the Jade War Lord. Meanwhile, the Jade War Lord sends Ni Chang (Bingbing Li), a.k.a., the Bride with White Hair, to retrieve the staff from Jason.
Story wise, screenwriter John Fusco mixed and matched, combined and blended elements from numerous films, including, as already mentioned, The Karate Kid, The Wizard of Oz, The Neverending Story, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and just about every Shaw Brothersí era martial arts film (most followed simple, easy to repeat formulas). For the central character, an American teenager (an obvious nod to the gods of international commerce), Fusco borrowed heavily from Joseph Campbellís A Heroís Journey, from Jasonís early reluctance or inability to see his own talents, to getting a mentor (actually two) wise in the ways of martial arts, both physically and spiritually (cue pseudo-Eastern philosophy and a montage sequence depicting Jasonís training). Maybe, though, thatís giving Fusco too much credit, because the screenplay he slapped together is, to be frank, uninspired hackwork.
Fusco did just as badly, character wise. Fine, the characters Jason encounters in the Forbidden Kingdom are archetypes and, therefore, donít need deep characterizations, but Jason is such a bland, even insipid character, a dreamer and fanboy, new in town (and, thus, a likely target for a bully), fatherless (and, thus, eager for a mentor), inexperienced with women (and, thus, instantly attracted to the Golden Sparrow), self-doubting (the better for the expected inner and outer transformation into a butt-kicking hero), and obvious stand-in for the target demographic, that itís hard not to be insulted by how little effort went into giving him a meaningful backstory (or future). With Jason as the go-to character for audience identification, The Forbidden Kingdom crumbles into poorly scripted dialogue scenes that hinge on cod philosophizing by Lu Yan or Lan Cai He convincing the befuddled Jason to find (and express) his inner martial artist. Sorry, Mr. Minkoff, sorry Mr. Fusco, but weíre not buying what youíre selling.But wait, youíre probably thinking, no oneís going to see "The Forbidden Kingdom" for its story or characters, but for Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Yuen Woo-pingís fight choreography. Yuen Woo-ping was just as uninspired by Fuscoís script as Minkoff was in directing it (minus the occasional swooping crane shot). Woo-ping relies on the same wire-fu moves weíve seen countless times before. While itís far from enough to save "The Forbidden Kingdom," Jackie Chan and Jet Liís face off is, as expected, "The Forbidden Kingdomís" highlight. Itís crammed with the energy, dynamism, and sheer joy that only masters of the martial arts can bring to the screen. Unfortunately, thereís nothing else before or after in "The Forbidden Kingdom" that even comes close to matching the Chan-Li martial arts magic.
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originally posted: 04/18/08 04:00:00