An American kid gets transported back to a hokey mish-mash ancient China in this gloriously daft new kung-fu actioner, starring two giants of the genre, wooden Jet Li and popular hero Jackie Chan.
Gormless Jason (Michael Angarano) has been bullied into helping local hoodlums bust in to a pawnbrokers shop in Bostons Chinatown, until an accident with a magic staff set him on a perilous quest to free an ancient Chinese kingdom and return home, aided by a motley collection of companions: Lu Yun (Jackie Chan), Soldier-Monk (Jet Li) and mandatory kung fu eye-candy Sparrow (Yifei Liu, who has almost nothing to do).
So far, so Heroes; but then things take a turn for the gloriously daft with the appearance of the Taoist pantheon, long immortalised in domestic Chinese film and TV such as the classic Journey to the West. Theres the man-hating Witch raised by wolves, the Jade Emperor, the Elixir of Immortality and, best of all, that most irreverent and un-Zen of heroes, Monkey King (also played by Jet Li).
Monkeys manic spirit is likely to unsettle anyone whos come to rely on martial arts epics for transportation to a distant place full of inscrutable, serene and serious people but nonetheless, nothing could be more authentic and its a pleasure to see him appear on Western screens. (Perhaps not uncoincidentally, Damon Albarns much-vaunted new opera revives the same source material.)
Unfortunately, Jet Li doesnt have much acting ability to bring to either of his characters. Unsurprisingly enough its Jackie Chan who steals the show, reprising one of the roles that first made him famous, as a wastrel who relies on alcohol for his skill. Although theres not much of his Drunken Style, Chans buffoonery remains the perfect foil to kung fu, throwing into relief moves which seem otherwise so balletic as to be scarcely real. His fight with Jet Li is truly extraordinary, and, with the plot centring around Monkeys famous weapon, the staff-work is mesmerising.
As the Western straight-man to the others genius, Angarano conducts himself half-decently but you cant help feeling its unfair to put him alongside such giants. But its got almost nothing to do with him: the film is an ambitious mish-mash of homages, seeking to recapture some of the spirit of a much older tradition of Chinese filmmaking. Sometimes this works well CGI contributes a lot to depictions of chi magic, a traditional feature of kung-fu TV fight scenes. But at other times its hard to know at whom this is aimed: Western fans of Karate Kid, connoisseurs of early Hong Kong classics, or the Chinese generation raised on kung fu soaps?
With a Lord-of-the-Rings-style pileup of endings and the suggestion of some sort of daft time-loop, the film revels in its hybrid nature. One even has the sense it has something to say about itself: Jason is berated by his mentors for his obsession with kung fu movies, Lu Yun struggles to keep a straight face through his umpteenth It is said solecism, and the Jade Warlords scorn at Jasons appearance also applies to the usual sort of kung-fu epic: Mortals are obsessed with prophecy. Its their opium.
The Forbidden Kingdom doesnt achieve the luminosity of Crouching Tiger but it does at least it avoids the pretentiousness of some of its recent predecessors, which, with their repressed loves, sensuous design and tragic profundity did their best to perpetuate some rather old-fashioned ideas of China and Chinese people.
If, on the other hand, extravagant use of wires doesnt annoy you, and youre interested enough in this genre to face up to some of its lumps and bumps, then watching two of the worlds greatest martial artists living it up in lavish cheese should prove a treat. As Chan tells Li, who is bemoaning Jasons regrettable non-Chineseness, Were all the same on the inside. Just remember, kids, in real life, kung fu shouldnt be relied upon to defeat hoodlums with firearms.
Despite starting out embarrassingly familiar, rehashing not only Karate Kid (bullies in urban America, goofy keen kid) but the cringe-worthy Chow Yun Fat vehicle Bullet-Proof Monk (2003 ancient holy artefact, kung fu movie fan), The Forbidden Kingdom is more fun than it might appear.