The Forbidden Kingdom
by Jef Burnham
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This film marks the first ever teaming of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. For die-hard fans of the two, The Forbidden Kingdom will come as somewhat of a letdown. Sure, it’s a thrill to see these two kung fu stars kicking ass side-by-side, but utilizing the overdone A Kid in King Arthur’s Court scenario as the basis of the storyline left me a bit flat.
From director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) and writer John Fusco (Hidalgo), the film would be perfect for introducing kids to kung fu movies with its fairy tale storyline and blood-free violence. My introduction to kung fu as a child was the 1982 Shaw Brothers classic, Chinese Super Ninjas, which features a ninja being totally dismembered by guys with chains and a warrior committing suicide with an axe. Though I still love Chinese Super Ninjas, I must admit that it is probably better to start with something like The Forbidden Kingdom. However, the film finds itself with a PG-13 rating, limiting the number of children in the theaters and drawing in more soon-to-be-disappointed adults. If you ask me, the rating makes them miss their target audience. After all, it is really no more violent than an hour and a half of Power Rangers, except with better fight choreography. Were this same film released twenty-five years ago, there would have been more swearing, possibly some nudity, and still walked away with a PG.
The film follows Brooklyn teenager Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) as he is transported to some magical version of ancient China. With the help of a drunken master (Jackie Chan), a silent monk (Jet Li), and the vengeful Sparrow, Jason must return a magical staff to the Monkey King in order to release him from the Jade Warlord’s spell, which imprisoned him five centuries earlier (that is, five centuries before the era Jason lands in, not 2008).
Michael Angarano is decent in his role, for what it’s worth. He may never look badass, but once he learns kung fu, he is actually quite impressive for a kid who appears to be 70% Shia LaBeouf. The main problem I have with him is that having Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the film makes him superfluous. They could have devised any number of scenarios to bring Jackie Chan and Jet Li together that didn’t involve this kid. To make matters worse, so much of the film is wasted on the time travel and Jason’s part of the story that we are left without any of Jackie Chan’s signature insane stunts. And Jet Li, thanks to the relative silence of his role is fairly unremarkable as well.
Also, I didn’t realize it until about a half hour after I left the theater, but the title makes no sense. There’s nothing really forbidden about the Middle Kingdom, where the film is set. Jason gets there pretty easily. If anything, it’s a restricted access kingdom—The Kingdom Forbidden to Anyone Not Carrying a Magical Monkey Stick, perhaps. But I guess that title doesn’t have the same pizzazz.
Jef Burnham is a film critic living in Chicago.
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