Sunday, April 20, 2008

"The Forbidden Kingdom" - movie review (spoilers)

I'm not a particular fan of Jackie Chan, but I love Jet Li, so when I first heard about "The Forbidden Kingdom", I knew it was a film I wanted to see. I didn't discover until a few days ago, though, that the film was in English, not Chinese as I had expected. I found that to be a little disappointing as I'm not a fan of watching them struggle with their English and me having a hard time understanding them. I'd much prefer subtitles, and I have no problem with them. I'm thinking this film wasn't aimed at me in that respect. It looked like they were trying to draw in the audience that wouldn't necessarily go if it was entirely subtitled.

We ended up going to an evening show at the AMC theatres at Universal CityWalk. We arrived about 10 minutes before showtime, and that screening was almost sold out. We did manage to find three seats together, though it was in the bottom section and to the far right, which is not where I generally prefer to sit, but at least we were all able to sit together and not be in the front row.

I was a little surprised at the trailers that were shown before the film, which were all fairly broad comedies, except for "Hellboy 2". I think I expected more action movies considering the film we were seeing, but our friend posited that they were going for the male crowd, and the husband's theory was that they were appealing to the crowd who were drawn in by Jackie Chan's comedies.

Generally, I loved the film. I didn't completely love the story - I could have done without the bracket story (it was a sort of "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" situation), but I understand that was the draw into the film being English, and there was a story/lesson that needed to be taught in the bracket story as well. Otherwise, I loved the story that was told in Ancient China itself (I'm really wanting to call it Medieval China, but I'm not sure that term exists.), and I think they did a good job of telling you the backstory you needed. They also did a good job of integrating the different characters as they showed up so you got a good sense of who everyone was instead of the jumble of "ok, now who's this person again?" that can sometimes happen with ensemble pieces.

There were bits of the story that also reminded me of "The Fellowship of the Ring", with a disparate group of people thrown together to aid an unwitting and reluctant novice on a mission to return an artifact to save the world.

The fellowship of the stick.

As you'd expect, the action sequences were outstanding. The choreography was brilliant, and given the pairing of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, you'd expect an epic battle between them - and the film did not disappoint. The geek part of me wondered what the contract negotiations must have been like with the two of them, making it a fair and balanced representation of both of them, kind of like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny in "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" But the extensive fight between the two of them was not the showpiece - that happened later when all of the main characters were engaged in battle, and there were a few other impressive sequences in the middle as well.

Michael Angarano played Jason, the Boston kid who was inexplicably thrown into the world that he was obsessed with. I loved the sequence where Jason was caught between his two teachers as they were battling each other in the techniques they were supposedly trying to teach him but what really happened was that he got a beatdown in the process. I thought he was very good, though I also found him very distracting because he looked so familiar and I kept trying to remember where I knew him from. It turns out he was in a few episodes of "24" last season, and refreshing my memory as to who he was, I remember liking him, but I'm not sure that his four-episode appearance on that show was what I was remembering him from. Then I figured out that it was because he reminded me so much of Shia LaBeouf in "Transformers".

Michael Angarano in "The Forbidden Kingdom".

Shia LaBeouf in "Transformers".

I don't think I've ever seen a Jackie Chan film before, but I really liked him in this. It wasn't the broad humour that I've seen in trailers of his films, but he definitely brought a nice comedic turn to the film. He played Lu, Jason's teacher/mentor, and he reminded me at various times of Yoda, Rafiki and Mr. Miyagi. One of my favorite lines from him was in the "wax on/wax off"-type sequence when Jason was complaining that he had just been chopping grass for a couple days and was not actually being taught kung fu. Lu went up to him and hit him with the stick weapon and said that the next day, he would teach him to block. For some reason, that scene reminded me of when Rafiki hit Simba in "The Lion King" and told him to forget about it because it was in the past.

I thought Jet Li was spectacular in this film, and I loved his flowing white robe costume as the Silent Monk. I'm glad I was right in figuring he was also playing the Monkey King, but even given that, I completely didn't see coming the revelation that the Silent Monk was just a hair even though it had occurred to me that the Monk was somehow some kind of reincarnation or alternate reality version of the Monkey King. My favorite line of his was after the big fight sequence between Lu and the Silent Monk, when the Silent Monk realized who Jason is, and he said to Lu, "But he's not even Chinese." That line had me cracking up. Of course, Jet Li's fight sequences at the end, both as the Silent Monk and as the Monkey King, were awesome.

Collin Chou played the Darth Vader-like Jade Overlord, and I thought he was very good, both in his acting and in his fight sequences.

Yifei Liu played Golden Sparrow, the orphan child seeking revenge against the Jade Overlord for killing her family. I never got why she would often refer to herself in the third person, and I wondered for a while whether Sparrow was supposed to have been possessed or something. I also wondered how she knew that it was the Jade Overlord who killed her mother. Supposedly, no one else was left alive after that massacre, and she would have been able to find her dead mother and see the arrow in her back, but since she was at the bottom of the well, I don't know how she would known that it was the Overlord himself who had shot the fatal arrow. I really liked the actress though and look forward to seeing her in more films.

Bingbing Li played the white-haired witch who had been sent after Jason and his group by the Jade Overlord. I really liked her, and I thought she had great expressions. I did laugh, though, when her character called Sparrow an "orphan bitch" during their fight sequence, and her serious men issues reminded me of Anya during her Vengeance Demon days on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer".

I loved the music in this film and may have to pick up the soundtrack. The cinematography was spectacular, as you'd probably expect from a period-piece kung fu movie.

One of my few complaints about the film is that they never explained how Jason was either all-of-a-sudden able to understand Mandarin or alternatively, how everyone in Medieval China was all-of-a-sudden able to speak English. (They also didn't really bat an eyelash at the white kid wandering around Medieval China, but that didn't annoy me ... quite as much.) When he was first transported there, he couldn't understand a word, and the Mandarin lines were not subtitled, so I have no idea what the farmer said to him or what Lu was saying to the guards prior to beating the crap out of them or even what Lu was initially saying to Jason. And while Lu's "you're not listening" line was funny, there was no explanation of why that magically made Jason be able to understand them all or made everyone in Medieval China be able to speak English. The rest of the film was mostly in English, except for some sequences with the Overlord that were subtitled. I'm having trouble remembering now if the Overlord ever spoke English, whether he spoke English or if it was subtitled when he proposed the duel to the death between the witch and Jason over the immortality elixir. The oddest language sequence to me was during the "But he's not even Chinese" line. Lu and Silent Monk both turned away from Jason and spoke softly, all as if to prevent Jason from hearing them, but that exchange of lines was in Mandarin and subtitled. If they're speaking a language he doesn't understand, why do they need to turn away and lower their voices? But then that means Jason doesn't really understand Mandarin and everyone is inexplicably able to speak English to him. I think it would have been really easy to address the issue, without even having to explain it or coming up with a plausible reason. All kinds of mystical things were happening, but a simple acknowledgement of the language problem would have been nice. When it comes to language issues in films, I am one of those who likes the disparity explained. The best example I can recall of this being done perfectly was in "The Hunt For Red October".

My only other major complaint is that even though Jason turned out to be a hero all around, I could never quite forgive him completely for betraying Old Hop. OK, he got beat up a little by the thugs, but rather than take any more punishment from them or trying to get away from them, he immediate caved and agreed to be the one to facilitate their robbery of Old Hop, a man who he seemed to like and respect and who had been so good to him? At least the situation was redeemed somewhat when it was revealed that Old Hop wasn't seriously hurt, gunshot wound notwithstanding, since his death would have made Jason completely unforgivable. I would still have liked some bigger threat of consequence to convince Jason to turn on Old Hop.

However, some minor issues aside, I really did enjoy this film. It had a good story, terrific action sequences, lots of humour, and they skirted the unnecessary romance angle that I was afraid they were seemingly heading towards. I'm looking forward to the DVD to see what additional sequences and behind-the-scenes footage will be included.

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