When two famous actors, renowned for playing similar roles but with a very personal touch, come together for the first time to make a film together, it almost always makes for… disappointing watching. Why? Well who knows! Perhaps it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Perhaps it is not only that opposites attract in onscreen personalities, but also that like and like repel. We were thankfully spared Arnie and Stallone’s originally set co-appearance in Face-Off. While The Forbidden Kingdom does have its moments, it’s teaming up of China’s answer to America’s action stars is never quite as much as any adventure they have starred in apart.
Jackie Chan has been likened before to Buster Keaton, an athlete/comic prone to getting everything brilliantly wrong before everything finally works out just right. Jet Li meanwhile is usually a more straight-faced, sombre type of action star. Here strangely, he is on equal footing in a clownish role, playing a Chris Tucker-ish role alongside Chan, which seems to defeat the purpose of placing the two alongside each other onscreen.
That said, the action is very pleasing to observe. Chan’s Lu Yan, a drunken kung fu master, is at his most entertaining when kicking and punching several guards while continuing to imbibe from his gourd. Li’s quiet monk also makes considerable use of his fighting skills, but his occasional outbursts of peculiar scatological humour bring the mood down on a character whose purpose is inexplicable until the film’s end (in, admittedly, a clever twist). But it is when the two stars fight one another that one feels let down; they both give it their all, and it is entertaining, but neither manages to outclass one another and since neither is the villain and the contest cannot thus have a victor, it all seems a little in vain. It would be like that famous scene in Heat if only both Pacino and De Niro were cops.
The story, bizarre as it is, runs like Last Action Hero mixed with The Dancing Cavalier (hope that’s not too obscure for you) in dynastic China. Obnoxious American kid Jason (Michael Angarano – expect not to hear too much more of that name) needs to learn courage and self-belief, and is transported through time and space by a magic staff, and only he can defeat the evil Jade Warlord from blah blah blah evil blah blah.
Apparently this Jade Warlord is an immortal tyrant of sorts, and has imprisoned the amusingly hyperactive Monkey King, the only one who can best him in combat, in stone. Only the Monkey King’s staff can free him, and so Chan and Li have to train annoying Jason, through the English language, in the ways of kung fu. An attractive female rebel is thrown in for eye-candyish and potential romantic purposes. She also has suspicious mastery of the English language. An extra villain is thrown into the mix in the form of a sexy albino witch whose platinum blonde hair also doubles as a whip. It’s silly, but it’s fun.
The film’s use of English is a major problem. Subtitles are occasionally used as characters converse with one another in Chinese, and it is only then that the Chinese actors sound like they control the language they are speaking. Chan and Li are, obviously, far more skilled speakers of Chinese than English, and it shows through when they speak their native tongue. While the film should be commended for starring so many Chinese and Taiwanese actors (as opposed to Chinese-Americans etc), it is a shame that they are so often reduced to speaking in English. One of the Jade Warlord’s most ruthless lines of dialogue is ruined when the actor, Collin Chou, makes the understandable mispronunciation of an “l” as an “r”. In a film where so much belief must be suspended, it would have been far nice if characters could have spoken their native tongues and just magically understood one another – the “wizard did it” mentality. If you’re going to use some subtitles, why not go all out?
So why this American crossover? Is it purely to deliver kung fu to a wider American audience? Well, yes! And the film’s financial success is testament to this. The actual use of Chinese locations for filming gives a huge amount of authenticity to the proceedings , as does the relative absence of digital effects work. Unfortunately the whole “Jason loves kung fu films and thus should be sent to China to learn a lesson” mentality that the filmmakers have gone for is just a bit too much to swallow. The opening credits show a great passion for old kung fu films that the rest of the film hardly cashes in on. Jason buys obscure kung fu films from a Chinatown pawn shop, but his spouting of references reeks of someone who has read Halliwell’s Guide to Kung Fu Movies* cover-to-cover rather than a true expert. Indeed, when bullies root through his recently purchased selection, Enter the Dragon is amongst them, and surely it is the first film every kung fu fan comes across (hell, I own a copy!). So perhaps I’m nitpicking here, but these are some pretty huge nits since the film’s premise is built around them. You’d need a tongs to get these things off!
So reference-wise you’re left feeling that this is another dumbed-down homage (see my comments on Madagascar’s despicable Planet of the Apes gag in the Kung Fu Panda review below), somewhat embarrassed to revolve around a topic that its target audience is more or less utterly ignorant of. When did films start patronising people to this degree?
In fact, now that I think about it, if you pulled Jason out of the film and replaced him with a Chinese Bilbo Baggins-ish in-out-of-his-depth character and made the whole goddamn film Chinese, with the two different masters bickering over how to train him, it might have been a lot more fun. But really all this has is a few amusing action scenes and some rather splendid art design. The rest little more than passes the time until the final 20 minutes, which should wake you up somewhat even if you couldn’t care less about the characters.
I’m left wondering if a team up between Chan and Li could have worked with better material. But then I just think about how much their previous films have been without one another and I smile as this little blip on the radar fades into memory.
*not a real book, but just imagine if it were…