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Forbidden Kingdom, The

dir: Rob Minkoff
[img_assist|nid=109|title=Together at last, in Brokeback Four Elements Mountain|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=480|height=320]
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: a young clueless kind of guy (Michael Angarano) who’s a big fan of 70s Hong Kong martial arts films gets mysteriously yanked through time in a bid to save China from the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) by returning the staff of the Monkey King (Jet Li) to its rightful owner.

From zero to hero in record time. Yes it is the same plot as every ill-advised attempt to bridge the cultural and box office gap between America and China through the distorted lens of Hong Kong cinema that has ever been committed to celluloid, cellulite and cellulose as well.

Homaging, pastiching, or downright ripping off Hong Kong flicks is nothing remotely new, in fact some hacks have made a career out of it. This flick takes a slightly different tack in that it uses CGI and current editing/post production tricks not to reference those flicks, but to at least replicate them on the whole, whilst remaining American-friendly throughout.

In other words, except for the pasty, awkward American teenager, this looks like a pretty good approximation of one of the many Shaw Brothers flicks that they talk about, except it’s in English.

I haven’t even mentioned what the major drawcard would have been at least in the eyes of the producers putting this pic together: The Forbidden Kingdom represents the first onscreen team-up of Hong Kong legends Jet Li and Jackie Chan.

Sure, it’s about twenty years too late, and both fighters/‘actors’ are way past their primes, but it’s still a momentous occasion. For Asians and action flick nerds, I guess. The rest of the population could probably not give a fat rat’s fuckhole about the whole kit and kaboodle.

If I were to put it in terms other kinds of people very different from myself could understand, I would put it thusly: for the dead-eyed, soulless followers of the British royal family, it’s the equivalent of Princess Diana and Camilla Parker-Bowles getting into a mud-wrestling match together. For fans of American tits ‘n splosions movies, it’s like 80s era Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone going toe-to-toe, and grunt to incomprehensible grunt.

For My Little Pony fans, it’s the equivalent of a unicorn frolicking through a daisy-covered field, prancing around with another pony who has wings. How gorgeous!

Both Jackie and Jet have been starring in a lot of loathsome and painful Hollywood flicks in recent years, and are given a chance to, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, really shine in roles as fun as they are generic. They also get to stage the absolute pinnacle and highlight of the film when they have a brawl when their characters first meet.

See, it’s a shame, because the rest of the flick can’t really live up to such a tremendous sequence. Sure, there’s a lot of CGI, tricky editing and wires where these guys wouldn’t have needed wires in their prime. But, getting down to brass tacks, these guys are way past their prime. It’s an honour, surely, for the stunt people and the computers involved in order to allow these guys to shine one last time.

The film’s story loosely comes across as a conglomeration of old martial arts movie clichés and random bits of Chinese mythology with the well-worn path for the Karate Kid protagonist to tread. From callow to confidant, the badly named Jason Tripitikas gets to become something of a fighter without turning into the god-like figure that most of these kinds of films predictably exemplify.

At first, since instead of having one hard to please master, he has two, the entire training stuff looked like it was a pisstake of exactly these kinds of scenes in these kinds of films. The ‘masters’ give contradictory and pointless advice, competing with each other in an earnest effort to both big note themselves and their respective styles and to ensure that Jason learns nothing of any real use. These scenes go on hilariously until they become serious, and you realise they’re no longer joking about it, and the gawky, ungainly Jason is meant to be able to stand and fight on his own two feet.

Of course, Jason’s passage from hopeless to adequate instead of to an expert could still be argued to be something of a subversion of the genre. Nothing really (still) matches Big Trouble in Little China, where the ‘hero’ started as a zero martial-arts wise and stayed a zero resolutely throughout.

Speaking of the oddly named protagonist, hmm, Jason Tripitikas, that sounds both odd and incongruous. Could it be some kind of reference to my absolute favourite television show of all time (well, at least during my childhood)? Yes it is; Monkey!

The tale of the irrepressible Monkey, the young priest Tripitaka, Sandy, Pigsy and their horse making their way to India in order to get some takeaway holy scrolls for the Buddha, comes from a classic of Chinese storytelling and mythology, put into book form by some shmuck called Wu Cheng En. From what I hear, Wu was a bit of a deadbeat, smelled bad, threw up a lot, and you wouldn’t want to leave your girlfriend alone with him out of sight.

Still, he managed to write a tale that classy Japanese tv producers made into a television series that delighted me after school when I was a kid as much as it confused me. The fighting, the perpetually yelling Monkey, the perpetually nagging Tripitaka and the legions of demons and fantastical elements never confused me: what confused me was why the alleged boy priest Tripitaka was so gorgeous and attractive to my young eyes, and why the serene and beautiful (in a middle-aged kind of way) Buddha was so feminine.

This led to a lot of gender role confusion on my part, painful experimentation, and a brief stint earning $5 a pop at bus stations, until someone pointed out to me that clearly the two roles were being played by women playing male roles.

What a load off my, uh, mind that was.

I loved that goddamn show, even if I was always noticing the painfully cheap costumes, the way their mouths weren’t even in vague synch with the screeching dialogue, and the constant repetition of footage. I loved it so much I even used to imitate Monkey in the manner in which he would call a cloud with which to fly through the heavens, or the way he’d fight with his staff (I even made my own, which, funny story, ended up as Exhibit 3a in a criminal trial: that shopkeeper should have known better than to mouth off, is all I’m saying).

So you’d think that any iteration of the story would be like crack for me. And it is, despite not being a crack user or addict (I’ve got it under control, I really do). But I have seen some pretty lame versions of it, and I’m generally not as much of a fan of the fantastical / mythological Hong Kong flicks as I am the non-fantastical variety. The main reason is that the fantastical (I guess they all look like fantasy films to those unfamiliar with the genre) ones, for me, are generally stupid. Deeply, deeply stupid and nonsensical.

The Forbidden Kingdom is fantastical, with gods, Taoist immortals, white-haired (and certainly gorgeous) witches fighting for the chance of immortality, evil warlords who kill their own henchmen for kicks, but it is far more entertaining (for me) and far less stupid than many of the flicks I can think of, especially some of the Stephen Chow ones, the Chinese Ghost Story or Chinese Odyssey ones. And, compared to either the serious (and laughable) flicks Jet Li’s recently been in, or the stupid ones Jackie’s been in like The Myth, this is a far less terrible movie.

Chan, for the first time in decades, actually plays a character I found entertaining in and of itself, which almost sounds plausible compared to the less credible billionaire adventurers / secret agents / Imperial bodyguards / policemen he’s been playing forever. He claims to be a Taoist scholar immortal, but mostly he’s a drunk. Maybe that’s why I can relate to him.

Playing as he does a drunk, and a hard-fighting one at that, it is with much joy that I got to watch him doing the Drunken Fist style of fighting again, which is the single greatest and least likely fighting style on the planet. For the uninitiated, which would have to include anyone who’s never seen the Drunken Master films, or a whole host of other flicks where it is displayed, it looks like what it sounds like: a fighting style based on being drunk and flaying about in the most ungainly and clumsy of ways.

In contrast with the tightly choreographed fluidity and economy of movement of other styles, it looks like a joke. But there is a central logic to it, and it looks great on camera. It’s a joy to behold for me, and Jackie looks great doing it.

Of course that’s not the only trick or style up his sleave, and he and Jet run through them all for our benefit. Both get plenty of screen time to showcase that they’ve still got it, but they also get a slew of lines of English dialogue, some of which are actually funny.

There’s also a literal piss-take which I would have considered beneath such actors, but considering the Monkey story, doesn’t surprise me, since, remembering the book, Monkey was, shall we say, shaking hands with the devil on a regular basis for the purposes of comic relief.

Both Jet and Jackie perform in dual roles (that means four characters, for those of you who can’t add right or talk the English good like I can), but nothing to the extent that would make you wonder whether they’re disappearing up their own arses like Mike Myers or Eddie Murphy. Jet clearly has a ball playing the Monkey King, chittering and giggling constantly to himself, perhaps less so as the dour Monk, though he gets more screen time as such. Damn, can he still fight.

Speaking of screen time, and the utilitarian use of screen time to provoke feelings of contentment and pleasure in an audience, the two roles for females in this flick are assayed by two gorgeous, tiny and feisty Chinese actresses, being Bing Bing Li as the evil girl clearly based on Bridgette Lin Chin Hsia in The Bride with White Hair, and Liu Yifei as the “good” girl Golden Sparrow, who thirsts for revenge. Both are stunning actresses, but I can’t for the life of me tell you if they’re good actresses. Just to go all feminist on you all of a sudden, it’s not like it fucking matters. They are a genuine delight for the eyes and decent fighters to boot.

I enjoyed the absolute hell out of this flick even when, and this happened a lot, I kept wondering what the pasty clumsy-looking American guy was doing there. He does an okay job, but, let’s be serious, even you could have played this role in the film and it wouldn’t have mattered. All you’d have to do is put on that slightly confused, slightly unsure expression on your face, and it’d be fine.

That’s the one.

Having said earlier that this is one of the least terrible flicks Chan has been involved with recently sounds like damning with faint praise, but it really is an accomplished film put together by people who love those films, and Chinese panoramic landscapes, from the look of the gorgeous cinematography, without battering you over the head with the concept that the director is the coolest fucking cat on the planet because he’s seen these films. I’m looking at you, Tarantino. Wipe that sickening smirk off your face.

Director Rob Minkoff couldn’t be cool if he tried, or if he staple-gunned himself to the torsos of Quentin Tarantino, Dean Martin and Robert Downey Jnr. This shmuck directed the Stuart Little films, for crying out loud, and The Lion King. He does, or at least someone does, manage all the same to put together (including the superb opening credits sequence) a comedic martial arts action flick that can appeal and pander to audiences, age groups and key demographics the world over.

7 times I laughed despite myself watching this flick, even the second time I watched it out of 10

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“Don't tell me you consider it sinful to drink.”
- “It's sinful if you don't share.” – words to live and die by, The Forbidden Kingdom.

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