Review: The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

The central character in The Forbidden Kingdom, Jason Tripitikas, is an adolescent boy obsessed with kung fu films.  However, despite the boy’s preoccupation, and an opening credits sequence that features images of Bruce Lee and other figures from old kung fu movie posters, this film does not really resemble the chopsocky films of the 1960s and 70s—the sort of films that Kill Bill was inspired by.  The Forbidden Kingdom is actually a Wuxia film, a martial arts adventure set in ancient China.  Jason buys his beloved kung fu movies from a junk shop operated by a wizened old Chinese man who possesses, among other things, a golden staff.  After an incident at the store one night, the staff transports Jason from our modern world into mythical China. In the magical kingdom, Jason joins up with two very different warriors who help him and instruct him in way of kung fu.  Michael Angarano (who looks an awful lot like Shia LaBeouf and is just as inherently likeable) is decent enough as Jason, but the script by John Fusco barely develops the character, and so, while we accept Jason’s transformation from cowardly film geek to courageous martial artist as part of the adventure, we are not invested in it. Jackie Chan and Jet Li play the two warriors, and it is fun to see these two giants fight alongside, and sometimes against, one another.  As for their performances, Jackie Chan slips more easily into his role as the drunken but skilled rascal, Lu Yan.  Jet Li tries his hardest to be the mischievous immortal Monkey King, but the performance is strained; his other role as the Silent Monk suits him much better.

My greatest disappointment with the movie though is that the fight sequences are unexceptional.  Boasting two of the biggest martial artist movie stars ever, and with action choreography by Woo-ping Yuen (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), The Forbidden Kingdom should have been more thrilling and impressive.  The fight scenes lack Li’s usual intensity and Chan’s trademark inventiveness.

Produced by both American and Chinese film companies and directed by Rob Minkoff, whose other films include The Lion King and The Haunted Mansion, The Forbidden Kingdom is a peculiar martial arts film that demonstrates how Hollywood’s interest in the Wuxia genre has grown since Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in 2000.  Hollywood now creates and not just distributes Wuxia films.  Furthermore, through its central character, Jason Tripitikas, the film taps into the Western fascination with China and martial arts, enacting a fantasy in which the Westerner becomes the martial arts hero, and the kung fu film fanatic becomes the kung fu warrior.

6 out of 10

The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

Directed by Rob Minkoff; written by John Fusco; starring Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Michael Angarano.