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The Forbidden Kingdom: Joseph Campbell’s Kung Fu Is Strong

The other day, a friend of mine randomly called me up and convinced me to go see The Forbidden Kingdom, the new Jackie Chan/Jet Li team-up. Naturally, it didn’t actually take much convincing. Why is this? I will reiterate: Jackie Chan and Jet Li in the same movie. If that isn’t a recipe for the most awesome martial arts throwdown you’ve ever seen then you need a new cookbook. I will admit though, besides the aforementioned best team-up ever, I really wasn’t expecting much from this movie. My reasons for this are twofold. First, the last time I drooled over the combination of two action stars under one title was War, the Jet Li/Jason Statham match-up, and that turned out surprisingly unexciting, leaving my expecations forever lowered. Second, what little I knew of the plot to The Forbidden Kingdom was unsettlingly reminiscent of another Asian-inspired fantasy movie, the preferably forgotten Warriors of Virtue.

For those of you who haven’t seen or even heard of Warriors of Virtue, and I understand there are a lot of you lucky bastards, the movie concerns Ryan, a young, physically disabled misfit who does something stupid to try and fit in with the stereotypical arrogant jocks who apparently make up 99% of the adolescent population of his school. This act of stupidity results in the young lad being washed away by a whirlpool (it sort of makes sense in context), and he wakes up in the mystical land of Tao, which happens to share its name with a manuscript given to him by a kindly Asian wise man of his acquaintance. Here is where my twelve year old self began to have a problem with the movie. Throughout the film, every single member of the cast mispronounces the word “Tao”. It doesn’t take much research to find out that it’s pronounced “Dao”. But that’s a minor quibble. The fact that the movie has nothing to do with the actual principles of the Tao and appears to be misusing the word in its entirety might be a bigger issue, but probably only to me.

Apparently the land of Tao is a magical place, where Ryan is no longer disabled, and the forces of the evil Lord Komodo (I wish I was joking), are held at bay by the mighty protectors of Tao, a group of warrior kangaroos. Again, I wish I was joking. The five kangaroos each embody one of the elements (if I recall correctly, the fifth element in this case was “metal”, in keeping with eastern definitions, as opposed to the usual “heart”). Each of the kangaroos had a distinctive personality to go with their archetype, of course, but they were bland enough that I only remember that the metal kangaroo didn’t speak, because he was too metal, and the water kangaroo was a sullen brooding outcast on account of having killed someone once. Now, I know this is a kids’ movie, but considering how much creepy violence and death was in the movie anyway, you’d think they’d allow the protectors of a whole world to take the occasional life for the greater good without going to live in the forest like an emo Yoda.

Long story short, Ryan learns a valuable lesson about being himself, helps save the world with his magical book and the weepy water kangaroo gets his mojo back in time for the final disappointing battle. The movie left a very distinct impression on my young mind, to the extent that any movie which reminds me of Warriors of Virtue automatically makes me wary and drops my expectations like a stone. So when I learned that The Forbidden Kingdom was about a modern American teenager who gets transported by a magical artifact to an Asian fantasy world, presumably to learn an important lesson about himself and fulfill a great destiny, I was immediately afraid that my awesome Kung Fu team-up was going to be ruined by patronising ignorant crap. It was a great relief to find that I was deeply mistaken.

The Forbidden Kingdom does share a similar plot to Warriors of Virtue, in much the same way that it shares a similar plot to Star Wars. The unfortunate connection in my mind to Warriors of Virtue was probably inspired by the Asian setting. The common threme shared by these three stories, and many others, is the monomyth, as described by Joseph Campbell. Rather than transcribe the entirety of The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I’ll just describe the very basic steps of the monomyth, or the hero’s journey:

  1. A call to adventure, which the hero has to accept or decline
  2. A road of trials, regarding which the hero succeeds or fails
  3. Achieving the goal or “boon”, which often results in important self-knowledge
  4. A return to the ordinary world, again as to which the hero can succeed or fail
  5. Applying the boon, in which what the hero has gained can be used to improve the world

This outline and a more thorough description of the hero’s journey can be found on Wikipedia.

While the monomyth is a fairly standard and oft-repeated storytelling format, it makes no gaurantees of quality. Stories based on the hero’s journey can be very good (Star Wars), or very bad (Warriors of Virtue). With The Forbidden Kingdom I found myself pleasantly surprised.

The plot revolves around new-in-town teenager Jason Tripitakas (Michael Angarano), whose entire life seems to revolve around old Kung Fu movies. He frequents an old thrift store in Chinatown, where he trolls for bootleg DVDs. On one such visit, he notices a golden staff, which he remembers dreaming about. The shop’s elderly proprietor says something cryptic about the staff, and then distracts Jason with a deal on Bruce Lee movies. After leaving, Jason gets into trouble with some local thugs, which leads to a confrontation back at the shop. During this confrontation, Jason finds himself whisked away to a land that might be ancient China, awaking with the staff and new, era-appropriate clothes.

Soon Jason finds himself at odds with the forces of the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), who wants the staff to prevent it being used to bring back the Monkey King, who will surely kick the Jade Warlord’s ass for turning him into a statue. Jason finds himself press-ganged into returning the staff to the Monkey King, and is aided by Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), a drunken warrior scholar, the Orphaned Warrior, Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), a young lady who likes throwing sharp objects at people, and the Silent Monk (Jet Li), who isn’t all that silent, but never gets another name. Along the way, Jason learns Kung Fu. Much badassery ensues, leading to a climactic burly brawl of a final battle.

The major shortcoming of The Forbidden Kingdom is predictability. There’s nothing surprising about this movie. Part of that can be attributed to the aforementioned monomyth being so ubiquitous in just about any storytelling culture, but even accounting for that, the filmmakers could have pushed for a more original presentation of the story. That said, the predictability didn’t ruin the movie for me at all. Some people, who aren’t as easily satisfied by choreographed violence as I am, might take greater issue with the lack of plot infrastructure, but action movie fans should be able to let it slide without any difficulty. Beyond that, as cliche as it is, the movie is so beautifully presented that a few cliches here and there don’t seem like such a big deal. The scenery is absolutely gorgeous, and everything is rendered in vibrant colour, with a principle theme of green and gold throughout.

As always, I was afraid the acting and/or dialogue would make me cringe. Thankfully, I was once again proven wrong. The actors made a fine ensemble, and the dialogue, while a bit melodramatic here and there, was organic enough to keep me engrossed in the story. The comedic elements of the movie (Jackie Chan’s in it, there’s bound to be a bit of comedy), were subtle enough and witty enough that they didn’t drag down the seriousness of the story itself, even though there were a couple of truly hilarious moments, including almost every interaction between Chan and Li. Thematically speaking, I might have a bit of a bias, as the movie appeals directly to my personal taste in mythic fantasy. High action, immortal warriors, magic permeating the whole of existence and god-like battles all make me a very happy filmgoer.

Of course, what really matters is the action. With two of the greatest Asian action stars of the last twenty years together in one film, expectations are high. Does The Forbidden Kingdom deliver on this unspoken promise? Oh, hell yes, it delivers. From the almost slapstick combat of Chan’s Drunken Immortal character (yes, he’s giving us another Drunken Master), to Li’s typically balletic violence, every piece of the action meshes together into a deeply satisfying whole. The film manages to transition between calm storytelling and all-out brawling fairly smoothly, and sticks to the rules of fantasy violence which state, and I quote: “damn right four people can take on a whole army. They know Kung Fu!”

The inevitable sparring match between Jackie Chan and Jet Li deserves its own paragraph, even if it’s a short one. That fight was fucking awesome. The filmmakers did nothing to downplay the fact that two of the best brawlers in movie history were duking it out before my eyes. It was a work of kinetic art, and would have been worth the cost of a movie ticket even if the rest of the movie had been Warriors of Virtue bad after all.

One little plot detail which I personally appreciated was the way the main character, Jason, evolved from useless crybaby to Kung Fu badass, specifically the time frame. There were a couple of subtle indicators that Jason didn’t just pick up his ass-kicking skills in a week or so. That was a nice bit of unexpected realism that should satisfy the sort of viewers who loudly question how Luke managed to become a Jedi so damned fast.

The Forbidden Kingdom is certainly not a perfect movie. It has its faults, as all movies do, especially action movies and fantasies. Perfection, however, is not the point. This is a movie that doesn’t need to be perfect. Perfection is for drama, for movies designed to inspire deep thought and analysis. The Forbidden Kingdom is better than your average action movie, and better than your average fantasy (Lord of the Rings may have set the bar high, but most fantasies fall far short). It seeks only to inspire one thought: “Hell yes”, and that’s as deep as it needs to be. And maybe that’s deeper than you think.

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April 24, 2008 Posted by | Movies | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Comic Books and Video Games: What DC Should Do

Those who know me well know that I have a great love of video games and comic books, and an even greater love of combinations of the two. That love, however, is conditional on said combinations actually being good. Unfortunately, I often find myself disappointed. Since the first bulky arcade cabinet rolled off the assembly line, the comic juggernauts known as Marvel and DC have been trying their respective hands at the challenging art of video game adaptation. Over the years, very few of these attempts have been particularly impressive (I won’t say none, because my memory isn’t that long, plus I heard the NES Punisher game was pretty good for its time).

In recent years, the determined folks at Marvel have stepped up their efforts and released some truly excellent games. Their first success came when they took sandbox-style gameplay and applied it to something other than stealing cars and assaulting prostitutes. Spider-Man 2 remains the only tie-in game to my memory that actually matches the quality of the movie it was based on. The same model was applied to the second of two Hulk games, with equal success. Turning New York City into one big playground through which we could swing or smash to our hearts’ content was a brilliant idea, and brilliantly executed.

Perhaps knowing that they couldn’t satisfy the video game market with just one style, Marvel went on to put out X-Men Legends and its sequel, the unpredictably titled X-Men Legends 2. Capitalising on the team dynamic and countless diverse characters for which the X-Men titles have always been well known, these two games allowed players to tackle the various missions they were sent on with any combination of characters and powers they saw fit. The formula was enough of a success that they followed it up with the logical next step: Marvel Ultimate Alliance. No longer restricted to the X-Men roster, now players draw from all corners of the Marvel universe to build their dream teams. The game even included the option to build a custom team complete with whatever badass team name the player wanted. Marvel Ultimate Alliance cemented Marvel Comics as a successful video game license.

I could continue the list of Marvel’s successes in the video game arena, but I’ve already mentioned all of the titles which will be relevant to this article. Besides, Marvel is not the focus here. I want to look at the other major publisher. Just what has DC been doing to compete with Marvel on the video game market? The answer, sadly, is not a whole lot.

DC’s video game contributions have been few and far between. In the mid-90s they released Justice League Task Force, which was a pretty decent fighting game, for the time. A couple of years before that, they released a game based on the Death of Superman storyline which, again by the standards of the day, wasn’t terrible, but was pretty generic. When the Nintendo 64 came out, DC tossed out a Superman game to go with it. I remember dropping that one after the first level, the controls were so terrible. But since I’m only judging Marvel’s most recent entries, it’s only fair that I do the same for DC.

In the last two years, DC has publicised the release of two games: Justice League Heroes and the tie-in to Superman Returns. I know there were one or two other games, because I saw a copy of Aquaman in a bargain bin once. For the purposes of this article, JLH and Superman Returns are the most relevant.

Superman Returns was apparently an attempt to cash in on Marvel’s success with free-roaming game environments. As Superman, the player could fly around Metropolis at his or her leisure, which should have been a really cool experience, since flying around indiscriminately is unquestionably awesome. Unfortunately, the developers decided to put city-shattering crises approximately once every block and a half, so the free-flying fun ended up taking a backseat to the constant battles against increasingly impossible enemies. Essentially, for a free-roaming setting, the game was far too rigidly structured, and also far too frustrating. As a result, Superman Returns was just another rent-it-and-forget-it title.

Justice League Heroes was another attempt to piggyback on Marvel’s accomplishments, this time mimicking the X-Men Legends. The game centered around the eponymous Justice League as they battled an elaborate villainous conspiracy that ultimately consisted of a guided tour through the DC Universe. Fairly typical for the format that X-Men Legends set down, so one might assume that the formula ought to work. The game, while fun, fell short of being impressive. It seems to me like the developers rushed the production of the game so they could release it in time to compete with Marvel Ultimate Alliance, which was released at almost the same time. Regardless of whether or not that’s true, the game is lacking some of the things that make Marvel’s versions special.

The first major failing of Justice League Heroes is the absence of choice. There are a few levels in which you can choose which two (not four, two), heroes you will take into action, but for at least half of the game your duos are predetermined. The freedom to build whatever team the player desires is one of the major appeals of X-Men Legends and Ultimate Alliance. Another major appeal is the variety of powers that could be acquired and upgraded nigh-indefinitely. Justice League Heroes, on the other hand, equipped their heroes with just a handful of powers each, and only afforded a few levels for each power. Finally, the game lacks the wide variety of playable characters that Marvel’s games offered. Sure, I could play three different Green Lanterns with identical powers, but other than getting to play as Kyle Rayner (who sounded like he was trying to be Batman the whole time), none of the unlockable characters were really worth the effort. Ultimately, Justice League Heroes was a mediocre effort when compared to its competitors.

These failures are made all the more disappointing by the fact that neither of these games are all bad. In both games, the controls were easy to understand and fun to use, the powers were cool, and the graphics were excellent. Justice League Heroes had an excellent voice cast, and a better script than X-Men Legends or Ultimate Alliance, whose dialogue often make me cringe. The games aren’t bad, they’re just, well, half-assed. Either the executives over at Time Warner don’t see the potential market for a good DC video game, or they’re just rushing their games too much. Either way, the only feedback I can give them is Needs Improvement.

I can think of one example of a game that I would buy and play to death. I’m going to stick to the X-Men Legends formula, and suggest drawing from the area where DC has consistently dominated Marvel: cartoons. I propose Justice League Unlimited, the video game. The setting comes with a massive stable of characters built in, so many that it would be impossible to fit them all into one game. Additionally, it has a built-in fan base, as the JLU cartoon is popular among young adult comic book geeks, the same geeks who loved Marvel Ultimate Alliance. Finally, the setting has a distinctive style and an opportunity for some excellent storytelling.

This hypothetical game would be designed and animated in the same artistic style that was the signature of DC’s animated masterpieces for a decade. A cartoonish, cel-shaded approach would help differentiate the game from Marvel’s properties. This would also allow for colourful, flashy powers which would draw in younger gamers, because we all know kids love shiny things and bright colours. And wholesale destruction. But let’s not stop at visually approximating the cartoons, let’s go all the way: bring JLU’s writing staff onboard to write the story and script. That will give us a guarantee of no cringe-worthy dialogue. Cinematic sequences can take the form of cartoon animations, making the whole game into one long, viewer controlled episode of Justice League Unlimited. Be sure not to skimp on the gameplay elements though. We want lots of powers, fully customisable, four-hero teams, and enough action to keep us playing the game over and over and over again.

I have no doubt that this idea would be expensive to produce, but I believe the cost could be turned into profit. It’s effortlessly marketable. Just advertise it in DC’s own comics and sales are all but guaranteed. Further publicity and sales can be gained by taking further advantage of JLU’s massive variety of characters. The X-Box 360, Playstation 3 and Nintendo Wii all have online marketplaces. Downloadable expansion packs and patches are already a reality. It would be almost too easy to release the occasional “character pack” of four five new heroes to further expand the players’ team-building options. Sure, the well will eventually run dry, but if the releases are carefully coordinated they could make a mint by the time they run out.

I’m sure this idea has a number of flaws that real game developers could spot, but I’m equally sure that these flaws could be corrected without sacrificing the basic appeal of the game I’m suggesting. The point remains the same regardless: if the companies developing games for DC would step up their efforts, and really try to release a masterpiece, we could see some fantastic games set in the DC Universe. With a little cash, and a little elbow grease, the possibilities are endless.

Next time: How DC can capitalise on the free-roaming environment.

April 21, 2008 Posted by | Games | 1 Comment

A New Toy For The Trend Resistant

I was a latecomer to the Mp3 bandwagon. My first gizmo was a generation 2 iPod Nano, purchased for me in September of 2006. Even then, I didn’t wholeheartedly join the flock. What use had I for these newfangled video iPods? 4 gigs was plenty of space for my music, and I saw no reason to venture into the territory of those multimedia monstrosities.

More than a year later, my iPod was starting to show its age. Battery life was gradually getting shorter, and 4 gigs didn’t seem like that much to me anymore. It was around this time that a friend of mine introduced me to a little-known brand called Archos. I was immediately interested. Not only was this product cheaper by the pound than an Apple product, it was shiny. I immediately resolved to acquire one as soon as possible.

“As soon as possible” proved to be several months away. I am not renowned for my affluence, nor for my money managing skills. And so it wasn’t until I got my tax return for 2007 that I could get my hands on one of these shiny gizmos. Three hundred and some-odd dollars at Best Buy later (Best Buy jacks the price of the Archos for some reason), and the Archos 605 Wifi became mine two weeks ago.

Technologically speaking, this thing is pretty much a handheld computer. I got the 30 gig model, but the 605 goes up to 160. It still blows my mind that they can make a pocket sized device with a hard drive the size of my computer. It comes with all the bells and whistles, too. Music player, file storage, wifi, video player, browser….okay, most of the bells and whistles. Here’s my first complaint about the Archos, and really the only major one. After buying the device itself, I had to shell out another $50 for a video plug-in and web browser. It made the original price of the Archos seem deceptive. The added cost, however, wasn’t a deal breaker.

Price is a big selling point for the Archos, if one is comparing it against its most obvious competitor, the iPod Touch. Even after the above-mentioned software costs, my total cost for the 30 gig Archos was about $420 after tax, or $375 without tax. That’s only about $6 more than Best Buy charges for the 16 gig version of the iPod touch. To get an iPod with the same functions and hard drive space as my Archos you would need to spend $500 plus tax. By sacrificing brand-name appeal, I got nearly twice the bang for my buck. For a poor bastard like me, that’s a big deal.

Aesthetically speaking, the Archos isn’t going to make everyone happy. It’s big, about 4.5 x 3.5 inches, and it’s got some weight to it. The good news is that most of this surface area is taken up by the 4×3 inch screen. The downside is that it’s not that easy to carry around if you don’t have a bag or a jacket pocket to stick it in. This doesn’t bother me all that much, since I tend to wear a jacket no matter what the weather’s like, but some people might pass it up for a more conveniently sized device. The Archos’s design is very techno-traditional. Shiny silver metal and plastic in a shape that makes it look like a tiny television. I know I’m not the only one who finds the simple, substance over style approach appealing. With the Archos I feel like I’m holding an actual piece of technology, whereas the iPod feels like a slick, expensive toy.

Where it fails to beat the iPod is in the controls. Apple has something of a reputation for intuitive, easy to use control interfaces. The Archos doesn’t quite meet that standard. It’s easy enough to get used to the button layout, but the touch screen interface could be better. The touch screen controls are, in most cases, a bit on the small side. I might just be unaccustomed to the whole touch thing, but I found some of the buttons hard to select even with a stylus. When I have a choice between the touch screen and the buttons on the side of the device, I tend to go with the buttons.

This review takes an unexpected twist in the face of circumstance, as my Archos decided it was too beautiful for this world a couple of days ago. The operating system has gone kerfucken, and as a result I was granted an opportunity to give the company’s technical support and customer service a cursory evaluation. I chose the email route for tech support, and got a response in less than two hours. Not bad, but let’s see how many hoops they put me through. Rather than make me go through every possible combination of troubleshooting methods (which I had already tried), Tony the friendly tech support guy took the information I gave him and drew the obvious conclusion: my shiny gizmo had transmuted into a shiny brick. He immediately hooked me up with the necessary RMA information to get the thing repaired or replaced, as needed. All I need to do is find my way around the returning process (my two and a half years working for FedEx will prove helpful here), and probably pay for the return. Could be worse.

As I was going through this process, an unsettling thought occurred to me: what about the software I paid for? Will I still have that if the device needs to be replaced, or will they take the opportunity to fleece me out of another $50? Time to give customer service a call.

A relevant digression: I spent three years working at a customer service call center (See above, re: FedEx), and as such I am intimately familiar with the inner workings of that industry. In other words, I know exactly how bad customer service can be. Any time I have to call a customer service line, I brace for the worst. This time, my suffering was minimal. I was only on hold for maybe three minutes, and the gentleman who finally took my call didn’t give me any kind of runaround. If my device is repaired or replaced, any software I bought will be loaded onto the new/fixed product, and I should give them a call when I get it back just to make sure. I asked, he answered, no unnecessary bullshit.

To summarise, the Archos 605 is a better-than-decent product. It earns high marks for technology and price, but gets dinged for unnecessary extra costs and less-than-perfect interface. Aesthetically, you’ll either love it or hate it, but I love it, so it gets points there. Tech support and customer service are surprisingly good, based on first impression, but time will tell how that all works out. In the end, if you’re looking to buck the Apple trend, but still want a quality product, I would definitely recommend the Archos.

April 17, 2008 Posted by | Technology | 2 Comments