Thursday, 28 July 2016

Film Review - 'The Forbidden Kingdom'

For any fan of martial arts films, the idea of Jackie Chan and Jet Li appearing in the same film would have to be a pretty big deal. I mean, it probably wouldn't even matter what the film actually was, right? As long as both put in an appearance, and were guaranteed to share at least once action-sequence, that would have to be enough of a draw to make the film worth a look, at least.

Thankfully, though, the film which did ultimately unite two of the world's most recognisable martial arts performers was, ultimately, a genuinely enjoyable one - even if it wasn't quite the instant classic that fans might have hoped for.

Borrowing heavily from the classic Chinese tale, Journey to the West, The Forbidden Kingdom centres around Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) - a young martial arts enthusiast living in modern day America. Jason is very much the standard 'social outcast' type - with one of his few, genuine, friends being the eccentric owner of an antique store, he keeps Jason supplied with the obscure martial arts things that the young man loves. But, of course, not everything is as it seems - as this eccentric store owner also happens to be in possession of an antique staff which may, in fact, have once belonged to the legendary Monkey King.

Forced by a gang of local thugs to take part in a robbery of the store, Jason reluctantly finds himself in possession of this mysterious staff - and, since it was inevitable that the legends behind the staff would turn out to be very real, Jason promptly finds himself flung far back in time, to ancient China, as a result.

From there, Jason finds himself forced on a desperate quest to return the Monkey King's staff to its rightful owner - setting the legendary figure free from his imprisonment at the hands of the Jade Warlord, who has come to rule these ancient lands with an iron grip. Jason does not need to make the journey alone, though - as, he is soon joined by a mysterious by a mysterious young woman called Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), an eccentric wise-man who claims to be one of the Eight Immortals of Chinese myth (Jackie Chan), and a nameless monk (Jet Li).

So, in the end, what we have with The Forbidden Kingdom is a tale which seems to borrow liberally from Journey to the West, but without providing anything that resembles a straight-forward adaptation. This is perfectly acceptable, of course - there are, after all, already many different versions of Journey to the West readily available, if that is what you are after (the 1970s Japanese series, Monkey, is a personal favourite of mine).

It is all perfectly entertaining, too - with the film proving to be more than capable of maintaining its mixed tone of light-hearted charm and exciting adventure from the moment that Jason finds himself cast back in time. While Jason does, unfortunately, come across as a bit bland, in the way that characters designed to act as audience surrogates often are, the rest of the cast also prove to be more than capable of picking up the slack.

As you might expect, though, it is Jet Li and Jackie Chan who prove to be the true stars of the film - and, for long time fans of each character, there is a definite joy in seeing each of them, essentially, recreating aspects of their most iconic performances. Here, we have Jackie Chan once more portraying a mastery of the visually impressive, and incredibly unusual, style of Drunken Boxing, while Jet Li once more portrays of master of Shaolin Kung Fu. Also, and perhaps most importantly, while the seemingly obligatory action scene between the two may have been placed in the context of a simple misunderstanding before the two characters join forces, it still proved to be everything a fan could have hoped for.

So, everything that happens once the film shifts its attention to ancient China is, ultimately, a lot of fun - from the early moments of confusion, and right up until the appearance of the Monkey king, himself (also played by Jet Li). It's bright and colourful, and often genuinely exciting in that harmless, family-friendly, sort of way - and, it is also filled with some great performances, and fantastic moments of action.

If this is all there was to The Forbidden Kingdom, then the film could have been remembered as the perfectly entertaining action/adventure which finally brought Jet Li and Jackie Chan together. Unfortunately, though, it is also very easy to imagine many members of the audience being somewhat put off by the apparent need to inject a white American teenager into a story about Chinese myth - especially when you consider the increasing concern with 'white-washing' that has been cropping up over the past few years. Not only is Jason Tripitikas a somewhat bland protagonist (although, admittedly, Michael Angarano does seem to be doing the best he can with the role), but his presence often feels distracting - especially when you consider that the original plan, apparently, was for the story to focus on a Chinese-American character.

Regardless of your opinion on Jason Tripitikas as a character, though, it is the modern day scenes which, ultimately, form the weakest link in an otherwise enjoyable film - if only because they take too much screen-time away from the much more interesting quest to free the Monkey King. With their focus on Jason's dealings with a group of cartoonish teenage thugs, it seems more than likely that these scenes would have felt tedious and unnecessary even if the film actually had gone with its original plan for a Chinese-American protagonist.

By the end, I was left with the very strong impression that the film, as a whole, would have been much improved without this 'modern world' context - and, by implication, without its teenage American central protagonist. Though, in saying that, I also have to admit that I am perfectly aware of the purpose that this character was intended to serve - with his own unfamiliarity intended to act as an entry-point into this strange and fascinating world for the audience. So, if the inclusion of a modern American teen protagonist is enough of a draw to get people to watch an interesting take on ancient Chinese myth and folklore, then I suppose that there's no real harm in it.

Because, that's exactly that what The Forbidden Kingdom is, in the end - a perfectly entertaining, if somewhat forgettable, adventure film which presents a tale drawn from Chinese myth and made palatable for American audiences. And, there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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