The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

2014 #72
Rob Minkoff | 104 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA & China / English & Mandarin | 12 / PG-13

The Forbidden KingdomJackie Chan and Jet Li co-star for the first time (with shared billing, thanks to the J — on screen as it is on the poster) in this US-produced martial arts epic.

Despite slick modern filming and CGI, it all feels kinda ’80s — not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. But there’s something about the setup — which sees teen Michael Angarano find a magic staff in a Chinatown shop and escape a group of thugs by accidentally transporting back to Ancient China, just in time for a Quest — that rings of ’80s US kids/teenage movies to me, though I’m not exactly sure which ones.

Anyway, it’s once he’s in the past that the fun begins. The staff belongs to the immortal Monkey King, imprisoned as a statue by some nastier fellow immortals, and it’s up to our teenage hero and his newly-found companions to return it. Cue trekking across countryside and fighting lots of enemies. It’s a straightforward and well-trodden story, but it’s serviceable enough to link up the action sequences. Those are well-handled by director Rob Minkoff, which you might not expect from a man whose previous experience was mostly limited to The Lion King and Stuart Little.

The big one everyone wants to see, of course, is Chan vs. Li. Rather than engineer it to form part of the climax, they duel halfway through, in an encounter that settles on a victor just as much as that opening credit does. Nonetheless, it’s an epic bout in terms of both scope and length. It’s clearly been lavished with the appropriate attention, and focuses on the pair’s physical skills rather than being cobbled together with editing or brushed over with lashings of CGI.

The forbidden educationWe do get the latter during the climax, which is fine; the former never rears its ugly head. Minkoff knows to hold his camera back, eschewing the fast-cut close-up style of most modern Hollywood action for a more traditional use of long shots and longer takes. It’s a natural fit for the extensive, impressive choreography that’s performed by expert professionals.

Received wisdom seems to be that The Forbidden Kingdom is not very good, but I really enjoyed it. It’s undeniably hokey in places, but no more so than your average genuine martial arts flick (this being a “semi-genuine” affair, with its Hollywood lead actor, writer and director, and primarily English dialogue). Best of all, the fight scenes are uniformly great — the highlight may be midway, but the others didn’t disappoint. Not the best work that either Li or Chan has appeared in, I suppose, but an entertaining martial arts flick all the same.

4 out of 5