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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.


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