By Jonathan Decker (Family therapist, film critic)
If you expect me to hold a predisposed favorable bias toward a movie pairing Jackie Chan and Jet Li, you'd be right. Knowing that The Forbidden Kingdom (rent or buy it here) had a 7-minute brawl between these two icons, I was prepared to pay full admission for that one scene alone, even if the rest of the movie were total crap. To my surprise, however, the rest of the movie is actually a very enjoyable fantasy, a journey in the vein of The Wizard of Oz if Dorothy were a Boston teen, the red-slippers were a fighting staff, and the villains weren't disposed of by water, but by a huge, tag-team butt kicking!
The film has the tone of the great family-friendly adventure movies of the 80's, the ones that captured the imaginations of kids and adults alike. I'm talking The Goonies, The Karate Kid, The NeverEnding Story, Willow, and to a lesser extent, The Flight of the Navigator. This movie reminded me of the movies that I loved as a kid (and still love today.) Stir that up with 70's kung-fu movies, a little dash of Disney morality (the movie was directed by The Lion King helmer Rob Minkoff), gorgeous cinematography of rugged Chinese landscapes, fight choreography by Yuen Wo Ping (who did the fights for Crouching Tiger and the Matrix trilogy), some Chinese mythology, and a handful of comedic scenes ranging from amusing to hilarious, and that's what this movie is.
The screenwriter is an American who is also a student of Jet Li's, and it's obvious that he loves Chinese culture, mythology, and cinema. This film is an obvious love letter to all of that, and you should know going into it that it's meant to introduce Western audiences to the characters of Chinese legends. The Greeks had Hercules and Zeus, Americans have Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed. Likewise, the Chinese have their own mythical heroes and villains (mostly unfamiliar to us) who are thrown together in this movie: The Monkey King, The Bride With White Hair, etc. If you watch it with the wrong mindset, these characters might seem silly; however, if you watch it the same way you'd watch a film like The Wizard of Oz, the characters are great fun. (REVIEW CONTINUES BELOW)
I loved Jet Li's playful performance as The Monkey King (both he and Jackie Chan have dual roles in this), and The Bride With White Hair is such an enjoyably evil villain, I want to learn more about her mythology. I especially loved the musical motif for her; the movie's score is often beautifully symphonic, but whenever she comes on screen, it sounds more like a riff for the villain in a spaghetti western or in a Tarantino film. It was intentionally campy and over the top and I loved it.
Normally I'm opposed to any type of wirework in a movie with Jackie Chan. His raw athleticism speaks for itself: he don't need no stinking tricks! However, I'll make an exception here, because Yuen Wo Ping's wirework: 1) actually accentuates his actor's athleticism, rather than compensating for a lack thereof, and 2) is often in the fantasy realm, so supernatural moves are more acceptable. The fights in this movie are definitely in Wo-Ping's style; sorry Chan-fans, there's not a lot of comedic prop-fighting, wall climbs, or death-defying stunts here.
On the plus side, people who think Chan is an acrobatic clown who can't do real martial arts can finally shut up, as he expertly demonstrates various styles here. Jet Li, of course, kicks all kinds of butt. The film is very much a Jackie Chan film in terms of comedy (Jet Li even has a few wonderfully funny moments), but the fights are more in the Jet Li/Yuen Wo-Ping sensibility. The sound design on the fights is wonderful, with some meaty punches. Chan's English is noticeably improved, broadening his comedic abilities beyond physical comedy and into the realm of legitimately well-delivered English dialogue.
Of course, the film is not perfect. I don't want to gush on and on about what is, after all, nothing but a fluffy popcorn movie. Some of the dialogue is laughable. Much of the story is cliche and has been done before, both in other fantasy movies and in the collective Chan/Li canon. And the film drags at times. What matters, though, is that it always picks itself up. Just when nothing good has happened for a few minutes, a great comedic scene or fight occurs. The cast is all obviously having fun. Jackie Chan and Jet Li have a natural screen repertoire. And yes, I even liked the teenage kid. All in all, this is a fun fantasy adventure that certainly doesn't have the depth of a Lord of the Rings, but has more than enough charm to merit a watch on the big screen.
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Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.