Jackie Chan. Jet Li. In the same movie. ‘Nuff said, right?
Well, not quite. But fans of “J&J” (Jackie Chan and Jet Li, as the studio calls them) have waited to hear those eight words in the same sentence for 25 years, and all it took was the director of Stuart Little and the writer of Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron to make The Forbidden Kingdom happen. “Say again?” you might ask.
Yep. Director Rob Minkoff and screenwriter John Fusco spearhead the movie that not only brings the globe’s two biggest martial arts icons together on-screen for the first time but also adapts elements of China’s most famous novel, Journey to the West. Not Asian filmmaking legends like Tsui Hark or Ang Lee. Not even Hollywood action experts like James Cameron or the Wachowski brothers. Instead, it’s John Fusco (who wrote a cartoon about talking horses) and Rob Minkoff (whose claim to fame is bringing E.B. White’s children’s novel to life).
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That’s not a knock against the filmmakers or Forbidden Kingdom. But Rob Minkoff and John Fusco certainly gloss over a lot of Chinese mythology with a fine layer of Hollywood queso.
Fortunately, the pair crafts a simple, family friendly fantasy and lets the real behind-the-camera talent shine: action director Yuen Woo-ping. His dazzling fight choreography makes Jackie Chan and Jet Li look more deadly than they have in years despite being in their mid-50s and 40s, respectively. Yuen Woo-ping unwittingly started the “wire fu” fad in the West by staging fights for two of the last great martial arts movies of the 20th century: The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. For the next half decade, Hollywood imitated him, often with laughable results. Now, the master of movie combat takes back his style from the poseurs who turned wushu wire work into a cliché.
With Yuen Woo-ping’s help, the two screen legends don’t just drop kicks in their duel; they drop jaws with a martial buffet of high-flying strikes, intricate hand techniques and various Shaolin styles. Praying mantis, tiger claw, stunt-wire-infused kung fu—Yuen’s got it all playing to each actor’s strengths. As the Silent Monk, Jet Li spins, twists and flies with a grace not seen since his Once Upon a Time in China days. Meanwhile, Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-ping pay homage to their 1978 Drunken Master classic by having Jackie Chan dish out some intoxicated kung fu comedy as Lu Yan, a drunkard who happens to be an immortal warrior. It’s a beautiful thing to watch their contrasting styles meld like yin and yang in a lethal on-screen ballet.
Unfortunately, Forbidden Kingdom loses some of its action cachet for featuring too much chi kung magic in the climactic set piece. It’s disappointing to see Jet Li and the villain (played by Collin Chou) shoot fireballs at each other like Dragon Ball Z wannabes. Why rely on CGI special effects for thrills when there are two action icons and a fabulous martial artist in Collin Chou?
The flick’s biggest weakness is its watered-down story. While John Fusco, a real-life martial artist, sprinkles the script with odes to Chinese movie classics and references to jeet kune do and Taoism, he panders too much to demographics. He underestimates the mainstream fans’ understanding of other cultures, forgetting that it was the average American moviegoer who helped pump up Crouching Tiger to Oscar-winning status with more than $125 million at the U.S. box office.
In an unnecessary effort to have audiences relate to Chinese mythology, John Fusco and Rob Minkoff shift the spotlight off J&J and onto Jason (played by Michael Angarano), an American teenager who gets sucked into ancient China when he finds the staff of the Monkey King, a mischievous deity who’s been imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). After a second act filled with typical martial philosophy and some humorous training via Jackie Chan and Jet Li’s interactions, rivals Lu Yan and the Silent Monk predictably team up with Jason to return the staff, free the Monkey King and overthrow the Jade Warlord.
Thankfully, Michael Angarano is a rock-solid actor, and his kung fu progression in the movie is quite convincing.
Collin Chou is an on-screen gem as the Jade Warlord. Having co-starred as Li’s dad in Fearless and Donnie Yen’s nemesis in Flash Point, Collin Chou proves he’s a versatile performer with the ability to act or fight in almost any role. Too bad his demise in Forbidden Kingdom is as predictable as the sunrise.
Plus, it’s too obvious that the filmmakers carefully balanced Jackie Chan and Jet Li’s screen time for fear of offending egos. Each actor gets a starring role and a supporting role that requires special makeup: Jet Li plays the Silent Monk and the Monkey King, while Jackie Chan plays Lu Yan and Hop, an old shopkeeper Jason befriends.
But four times the star power doesn’t quadruple the cinematic value of 2008’s first martial arts box-office hit. Funded mostly by Hollywood money, crafted by American filmmakers and created largely for Western audiences, Forbidden Kingdom could have been one of the greatest epics from China in recent years. Instead, the movie is the cinematic version of Panda Express’ sweet-and-sour pork—it’s tasty fast food but not particularly authentic.
(Patrick Vuong is a freelance journalist, screenwriter and martial artist based in Orange County, California.)