Tag Archives: Jackie Chan

The Forbidden Kingdom – Review

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.

2/5

*not a real book, but just imagine if it were…

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Kung Fu Panda – Review

There is no doubt I was dreading this. I have been a huge critic of Dreamworks’ digitally animated production since Shrek, and it’s hard not to see why. By in large they have been confused disasters.

I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a Pixar purist. I have loved every film of theirs I have seen (admittedly I have evaded A Bug’s Life and Cars). But I resent how Pixar has decimated Disney’s animation studios. Similarly I resent how Dreamworks have repeatedly produced hackneyed digitalisations of airport bookshop children’s stories with added pop-culture tripe and successfully sold them to the masses.

The resounding death knell, as far as I could see it, was in Madagascar, when Ben Stiller’s New York lion builds a faux Statue of Liberty on the beach to remind him of his lost home. This subsequently burns down, and he collapses in front of the rubble and à la Charlton Heston screams “you blew it up… darn you! Darn you all to heck!”

Wait the fuck – Darn? Heck? That’s an awful lot of censorship for a children’s film. And a reference to a film that children won’t likely have seen. So who is the joke for? If it’s for the beleaguered adults forced to sit and watch with their accompanied child, then the removal of “bad language” only serves to be outrageously condescending. And why would one even need to make a pop-culture reference to Planet of the Apes in a film that appears to have a solid plot structure (fish out of water zoo animals fend off the wild)? It boggles, and insults, the mind.

So yes, Dreamworks = shit. We’ve established that. But their latest film, which I have managed to resist mentioning for some 300 words, is actually moderately charming. In fact, it might even be deemed somewhat charming.

Kung Fu Panda is a film that if we took too seriously we would bemoan the lack of Chinese voice-actors and storm out of the cinema in a pseudo-political protest. But why bother? This film shows enough sensitivity to the land from which its story sort of derives (references to actual forms of kung fu, mahjong, various types of dishes etc) to be deemed well researched, for a kids’ film.

There is even some maturity in the script, most notably the cleverness of the film’s MacGuffin and the means by which the villain is defeated. There are also no references to popular culture (films, TV, music or forms of speech) bar occasionally toying with Jack Black’s traditional film personality, which is perfectly acceptable (and in fact leads to one of the film’s funniest sequences). Obnoxious use of modern music (most notable in the progressively disastrous Shrek series) is completely avoided until the closing credits, when ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ plays – and by then they’ve earned the right to it.

The story is fun if simple. Po, a Jack Black panda, is a food-loving panda who works with his father, a duck (amusingly never explained) who owns a noodle bar. His dream is to be a kung fu artist, and is accidentally given the chance when chosen in an apparent accident by Master Oogyay, the local mystic, and wittily a tortoise. The seemingly random choice (it is insisted by Oogway there are no accidents) outrages his disciple Master Shifu who has five excellent students, Monkey, Mantis, Viper, Crane and Tigress, all more suitable than Po, who is without training. But when the evil Tai Lung, a Siberian tiger, escapes from prison (in a rather exciting manner), it is Po who must train and face him.

The plot has few diversions from the basic “chosen one must find his path” tale, but there are clever things to be found. Po is not told to diet, as his equivalent in another film – instead he learns to master his desire for food into a martial art. While Tigress is utterly offended at not being the chosen disciple, the other four animal characters reveal themselves to be far more understanding. Tai Lung is not only undone by his own hubris, he is sat upon by it.

The gags come at regular intervals, mainly from Po, though many also from Shifu, who is voiced by Dustin Hoffman; clearly having the most fun he’s had since he played Captain Hook. Angelina Jolie, as in Shark Tale (let us never speak of it again), is utterly wasted as Tigress. As an actress, Jolie requires her face and body to carry her characters, as a voice alone she is nothing. Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu add Chinese-(ish)-ness to Monkey and Viper, while David Cross gets one terrifically awkward scene as Crane, typical of his Arrested Development persona. James Hong makes up for his turn in the vile Balls of Fury, where he managed to both offend the Chinese and the blind in equal measures, in a pleasant turn as Po’s father.

The film’s greatest problem is that it never lives up to its opening five minutes, which set the scene too well, as Po dreams of being a great warrior, entirely illustrated in traditional Chinese forms. The gorgeous drawings, combined with the music and Black’s comic narration (the word awesome has not been used so effectively since Wayne’s World) make for an introduction to film that alas is not followed up on.

This is nothing to rush out to, but it shows a step in the right direction for Katzenberg and co. who have for once managed to deflect my wrath with a smile or two. It would be nice to see people try and animate humans again, but for now a panda will more than suffice.

3/5

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