The Forbidden Kingdom

Decent enough kiddy-friendly chop-sockey only overshadowed by the stellar supporting cast eclipsing the lead.

Released in 2008, certified UK-12A. Reviewed on 30 Oct 2008 by Scott Morris
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I have issues with this film. Specifically this film's title. The Kingdom in question is lorded over by some goon called the Jade Warlord. So, Kingdom doesn't seem as appropriate a description as, oooh, say, Area. Also, it seems to be in no particular way, shape or form Forbidden to anyone in particular. It's ruled rather stereotypically harshly I suppose, but that's not so much forbidding things as general oppression. I guess the more descriptive title of The Oppressed Area doesn't sound as invitingly Oriental or something. I have other issues with this film, you understand, but this is the one that seems the most interesting to talk about. This perhaps tells us something about the film. Or something about me. Or none of the above.

Anyhoo, this largely Western attempt at wushu starts off somewhat dispiritingly with a shonkily CG enhanced shot of a mischievous, tittering Monkey King (Jet Li) having a bit of a barney with some soldiers who turn out to be lackeys for the Evil Jade Warlord who's busy Evilly Oppressing people in defiance of some other God or something and there's a fight and the Warlord tricks and defeats Johnny Monkey King but not before Frank Monkey King sends his magic staff flying out into the ether or some such equally nonsensical setup that is barely worth the effort of recapping or splitting into more than one massive, unwieldy sentence.

Meanwhile, in contemporary grim urban reality a chop-sockey movie obsessed kid Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) finds a shiny golden rod in a mysterious pawn shop which turns out to be the Monkey King's pole (no sniggering at the back, please). As is so often the way, this transports him off into la-la wushu wire-work land 500 years after Dave Monkey King was defeated, and he finds himself in the uncomfortable role of the Seeker, prophesied to slip the magic pole back into the grasp of Colin Monkey King. Of course, not knowing any kung fu and having an army out to stop him might be an issue.

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Help and a measure of training are at hand in the form of largely drunk immortal Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), a vengeance obsessed young girl Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu) and a familiar looking passing monk (Jet Li). What follows is essentially a higher stakes redux of The Karate Kid with more wires attached, although arguably less of the charm. It clearly has aspirations of getting itself into the same league as Hero and Crouchy Tiger Hidey Dragon and to be fair, there's a couple of scenes that wouldn't embarrass themselves in that company. The rest of it tries hard but doesn't quite get there, but in the current climate where being quarter way decent puts you in contention for being the best film of the year The Forbidden Kingdom comes out of things quite well.

Of course, observant observers will have observed that the actual main thrust of the narrative has neither Jet Li nor Jackie Chan at the forefront of it. This is rather akin to having a backing band of Jimi Hendrix, Keith Moon and Alex James and putting Peter Andre as frontman. This is rather a harsh comparison on the perfectly acceptable performance from Michael Angarano, but the most noticeable thing about his character is that it's not the ones being played by Jet Li and Jackie Chan, which does rather tend to overshadow everything somewhat. It's certainly no mahoosive surprise when the most memorable and well-choreographed bout of fisticuffs in the film comes from a showdown between the two marquee names.

It's a rare case where the supporting acts turns out to be so good that it undermines the lead thrust of the story, but that's pretty much what's happened here and pretty much the only real issue with the film, strange as it may sound. It's easily the best performance (both acting and action) I've seen from Chan since, ooh, Rush Hour 2 and also marks another one of those rarities for a film with any Yankee dollars behind it, a Film Where Jet Li Smiles At Some Point. Always welcome to see him displaying some of the charisma and warmth that brought him to international attention rather than his usual English Language role of Emotionless Punchy-Kicky Machine. The only problem with both performances is that there's not enough of them, and let's be honest, that's why we're watching this film, not for it's ten-a-penny 'chosen one' underdog narrative that a team of forty dedicated clich? engineers would struggle to make any more clich?d than it already is.

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I'm starting to sound a lot more negative than I really want to be, as The Forbidden Kingdom makes for entertaining watching and acts as a welcome variation on the comic book superhero action that's being drip fed to us these days. Indeed, the mere phrase 'has Jackie Chan fighting Jet Li' is not only enough to make me, and I suspect all those amongst our number raised on a similar diet of populist kung fu and HK action flicks, automatically default to being rather fond this film, it's also enough to have me make an unpleasant mess in my underwear department.

So, while this isn't pushing back any boundaries of film-making, if you'll allow me to trot out the old daffy reviewing chestnut, you'll like this if this is the sort of thing that you like. You just won't like it anything like as much as the films it would so much like to be, but that's not stopping it being a diverting enough waste of a few hours for fans of people staving each other's faces in the dark kung-fu arts.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 3/5 TippyMarks.

Rob Minkoff
Cast list:
Jet Li (The Monkey King / The Silent Monk)
Michael Angarano (Jason Tripitikas)
Jackie Chan (Lu Yan)
Yifei Liu (Golden Sparrow)
Collin Chou (Jade Warlord)