The Forbidden Kingdom (2008)

If there's a overlying theme to the issues in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, it's that the potential was there for so much more. The fact that the film is a light, enjoyable confection almost feels besides the point. Yes, I left the theater happy. Yes, the long awaited fight scene between Jackie Chan and Jet Li is great. But I couldn't help feeling that with only a few changes this could have gone from an enjoyable confection to a great modern fantasy adventure film.

Michael Angarano plays Jason, the scrappy young hero obsessed with kungfu a la the Shaw Brothers and Bruce Lee, making frequent trips to his local back alley Chinese antiques shop to pick up bootleg films and make friendly conversation with the wizened proprietor (played by Chan in one of two roles). Of course he doesn't actually know any kungfu. When forced by some thugs help rob the shop, he comes to possess a magical staff that belonged to the fabled Monkey King (played by Li in one of two roles). He takes a nose-dive off the top of the building trying to escape and falls square into ancient China, where he bands together with a drunk immortal (Chan), a traveling monk (Li), and a young woman thirsting for revenge (insanely beautiful Yifei Liu) in order to return the staff to the Monkey King and restore order to the Three Kingdoms.

That's it. Shades of THE WIZARD OF OZ and THE NEVERENDING STORY filter what boils down to a modern US-friendly retelling of Journey to the West. Jackie Chan looks like he's having more fun in an American movie than he's had in years, especially when tossing out some fan favorite Drunken Boxing. The fight choreography by the legendary Woo-ping Yuen is amazing and plays with a lot of classic martial art forms and movie moments. Everything is beautiful and there are plenty of good laughs, so what's the problem?

Well, let's take 'em one at a time, starting with the bookend scenes that take place in the modern world. Do you remember the bad guys from Jackie Chan films like RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, where it's obvious that the inner city "hoods" are so unrealistic as to be laughable? Same problem here - I thought the main villain was going to break out in a number from WEST SIDE STORY at any moment. I know it's too much to ask, but I would had loved to see a these scenes done Scorsese-style, circa TAXI DRIVER: the grit and dirt of a more realistic portrayal would have been a much better contrast to the beautiful dream-like quality of the scenes in China.

Rob Minkoff's last directing job was the Disney adaptation of THE HAUNTED MANSION starring Eddie Murphy. Does this fill you with confidence? There's no personality to the directing at all. That may not be a huge hurdle when you're basically letting effect and spectacle tell the story, but when you have two of the most popular action stars in the world fight together for the first time, you want to make those scenes sing. Instead all the fight scenes, while brilliantly choreographed, are filmed with the typical Hollywood polish that doesn't allow the grandeur and grace of the movements to show through. I've yet to find a Western director who could really film a martial arts sequence (maybe the Washawskis or Luc Besson?) with the same passion that Ang Lee or Yimou Zhang demonstrated in their modern wuxia films.

I don't want to make too much of a deal about the script, except to say the first words that come of Jet Li's mouth are "No, FOOL!" 'Nuff said.

Understand: NONE of this hampered my enjoyment of THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. Jackie Chan displays a charm and warmth sadly missing from such dross like RUSH HOUR 3 and ably holds his own in the fight scenes, showing more chops then most people half his age. Sure, in a perfect word this would have been co-directed by Martin Scorsese and Yimou Zhang, but when you're working against films THE TUXEDO and AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS, I'll take the lightweight fun of THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM any day.