Reviewed at the 2008 Phoenix Film Festival
“The Forbidden Kingdom” marks the first collaborative experience for Jackie Chan and Jet Li, two action-film marvels fans have been clamoring to see bounce off walls and pummel bad guys for decades now. Criminally, “Kingdom” is a stiff, disturbingly ill-conceived fantasy film more consumed with playing slack-jawed fanboy than telling a compelling story (or at least a competent one) worthy of these two giants.
Jason (Michael Angarano, “Sky High”) is a Boston teen feverishly in love with Asian action cinema, nursed by the local elderly Chinatown bootleg dealer. When a bully situation escalates into the shooting of the old man, Jason takes hold of an ancient Chinese staff as commanded, and is transported back in time to a fantasy world. Dazed and confused, Jason finds some clarity in the presence of Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), an immortal fighter who explains to Jason that his staff once belonged to the powerful Monkey King (Jet Li), and to save the land from an evil warlord (Collin Chou), they must return the magical weapon to him. With the help of a powerful monk (also Jet Li) and a vengeful villager (Yifei Liu), Jason treks across the treacherous landscape to restore peace, learning important kung-fu lessons along the way.
Writing a synopsis of the complex “Kingdom” is difficult enough, but imagine trying to understand the story presented when most, if not all, of the exposition is provided by Jackie Chan’s garbled English. You see, “Kingdom” wants to be a love letter to fist-first Asian cinema, shot in glorious Asian locations, and cast with top-tier Asian actors. Who better to extract the local color out of the material than the director of “Stuart Little,” the writer of “Young Guns,” and a producer who wants the entire film shot in English. Obviously, when you want crisp, precise line readings of complex mystical backstory and important character comprehension, you hire Jackie Chan and Jet Li, right? That’s not to exclude Angarano, who could use a serious tongue-ectomy before he decides to embark on another role that demands basic verbal communication.
“Kingdom” is a lousy motion picture with self-consciously ornate production value and a strange self-assurance about it that’s entirely unearned. The film is a pastiche of martial art cinema classics, with special attention paid to the production codes of the Shaw Brothers and Ronny Yu’s 1993 stunner, “The Bride with White Hair,” brewed together in an extremely Hollywoodesque potion of stupidity and noise. Rob Minkoff directs with wide-eyed abandon, assembling a highlight reel of special effects and genre tributes that he has no feel for. The entire film is lacking an agreeable rhythm, with a tedious plot that overdoses on fantasy and a cast that can’t keep up with the wordy requirements of the storytelling.
It’s clear that the film has great admiration for big-screen martial arts, yet “Kingdom” takes matters to exasperating lengths, allowing fight choreographer Woo-ping Yuen plenty of screentime to stage repetitive brawl, aided by a disconcerting amount of CGI and wobbly wire-work. Perhaps Minkoff was too giddy to notice, since it’s clear he’s having a ball juicing up the body-contact sound effects and glazing the whole film with a paused-DVD reverence that takes his attention away from the basic requirements of pace. “Kingdom” is a lethargic creation, shocking when so much of the cast has built their careers around broken-bone brevity.
The centerpiece of “Kingdom” is obviously the team of Chan and Li, and their finest screen moment is boiled down to the only opportunity the men have to speak in their (somewhat) native language. The rest of the movie is devoted to the two leaping around and losing the war on English-language lucidity. The physicality of these giants cannot be dismissed, and Minkoff gets his money’s worth when it comes to the film’s scattergun blasts of action. Both Li and Chan appear in top form, and their one-on-one contests are the picture’s lone saving grace. That is, until a scene comes along that has Li urinating on Chan’s face. Then you kind of forget the film has any merit whatsoever.
Many have anticipated a Li and Chan film for an eternity now, which makes the suffocating artificiality of “Kingdom” heartbreaking and absurd. Why hire these guys when the only purpose they serve is to embody ugly, bloated Hollywood ideas of low-budget kung fu classics? Besides gargantuan paychecks, there’s no reason. The public has waited for this pairing for too long to have it squandered on a dreary, numbing, and wickedly miscalculated offering of nonsense like “The Forbidden Kingdom.”