Jason (Michael Angarano) is your average teenager in every meaning of the phrase, from his first forays with girls to his rich fantasy life, in Jason’s case borne up by his love of the old kung fu movies he gets from the local pawn shop. It turns out his fantasy life might too rich, though, when a late night robbery goes horribly wrong and Jason wakes up to find himself actually in ancient mythological China.
As ideas go, it’s not a bad one, but it is going to be entirely dependent on its execution, and that’s where “The Forbidden Kingdom” fumbles a bit. It’s dealing with a lot of clichés of big-budget Hollywood filmmaking and wuxia films, but lacks a lot of the charm of either.
Characterization is based largely on archetypes, which can work, but only if through a great deal of charisma, and casting that is spot on. Angarano plays Jason the awkward youth perfectly, it’s a role he’s been doing for almost ten years now and it’s like he was born to do it. Unfortunately, it also makes it absolutely impossible to take him seriously when he starts doing kung fu.
Luckily (depending on your point of view) that doesn’t really matter because while “The Forbidden Kingdom” seems to want to be a classic hero’s journey, it certainly starts out that way, Jason stops being the ‘hero’ the second Jackie Chan shows up. Despite a lot of back-and-forthing from director Rob Minkoff, that never really changes, because “The Forbidden Kingdom” isn’t really about Jason. It’s about Jackie Chan and Jet Li being in the same film together, and that is it.
To be fair, Chan and Li appearing together are unquestionably “The Forbidden Kingdom’s” biggest draw, and the filmmakers would fools to pretend otherwise. However, since they are the focus of the film, we quickly begin to wonder why Jason is around at all and what are we doing spending so much time with him. The idea seems to be for him to be a point of view character for American audiences and that it would be easier to empathize with an American teenager than with the actual stars of the movie, which begs the question why would they rely on their stars to sell the movie, but not to anchor the story. The result is, except for a pair of bookend sequences that are the weakest parts about the film, Jason spends most of his time getting thrown around or out of the way while Li and Chan go about the kung fu business.
Which it has to be said is as good as you might expect. Veteran choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping has lost none of skill and Chan and Li put their all into it, with some able help from Collin Chou (“The Matrix Reloaded”) as the villainous Jade Warlord and his chief assassin, Bingbing Li. To their credit, Minkoff and screenwriter Joe Fusco haven’t shied away from some of the over-the-top aspects of the wuxia genre, like Bingbing Li’s prehensile hair, and Chinese mythology (the plot hinges around “Journey to the West’s” Monkey King) that haven’t been widely sampled in America yet. It’s actually a pretty faithful rendition of the genre, albeit one that has been heavily Americanized. But even in the kung fu, “The Forbidden Kingdom’s” greatest strength is also its biggest weakness.
Because Chan and Li hold such stature in the kung fu genre, a lot of very careful positioning is taken to make sure that one never tops the other. The result is that both are playing versions of the same character, each in their own way; Chan does a version of his Drunken Master character, and Li’s monk is not too far off from “Once Upon a Time in China.” The idea of them as archetypes from their own movies actually works, it fits perfectly with the idea of the world as a reflection of Jason’s unconscious (and it also lets Minkoff get away with some atrocious in-universe rule breaking as the characters switch back and forth from Chinese to English at whim). But the end result is that one of these characters is redundant, and neither can ever get the better of the other. Even their much ballyhooed fight sequence, which is quite good, is a very careful balancing act aimed at making sure neither star looks bad, and that keeps it from being what it could have been, and that sums up the film as well. It pales, for instance, in comparison to a similarly built up sequence between Li and Donnie Yen in “Hero.” The lack of conflict is a bad way to try and create drama, and it shows.
The filmmakers must realize this because they end up relying on a lot of tried and true (by which I mean boring) tricks to get them through from one action sequence to the next. Tremendous amount of exposition to try and create the appearance of conflict – it seems like every time someone turns around they have a prophecy to relate, and a token love (Yifei Liu) who appears out of thin air and adds absolutely nothing to the story, except a girl. An argument could be made that his fits into the movie as Jason’s fantasy idea as well, but it’s all just a little too bland.
If you’re a big Jackie Chan and/or Jet Li fan, you might as well forget everything I just said. This movie was made for you and you should go see it on the big screen once. But because of a complete lack of storytelling effort from the filmmakers, there’s no reason to ever see it more than once.