When I first saw the trailers for a movie starring Jackie Chan and Jet Li as rivals on a mission in ancient China I was already on board. I haven’t seen may of Li’s movies (the only one that even comes to mind is the first Black Mask and in The One and maybe a few other appearances I’m not remembering) but I certainly know his reputation as a movie marital artist. And while I’m not the biggest Chan Fan you know I do very much enjoy the movies I saw him in. Except Shanghai Noon but I can’t even blame Owen Wilson for that one. So of course I was really looking forward to seeing this movie.
Unfortunately it came out in 2008, the OTHER year I made multiple trips to the hospital, where I learned about Crohn’s Disease not from when I was diagnosed but in the ER where one of the other patients didn’t believe she was just having a flare-up. Fun times. At least I didn’t get operated on and it was only two trips because the inflammation jumped a loop. Suffice it say I missed the movie. I did DVR it when I saw it air on TV…but didn’t get a chance to watch it, and then we switched cable providers and I didn’t get a chance to watch it. That is until last night months after I DVRed it yet again. So at least I didn’t miss it this time. So was it worth the wait 10 years later?
RELEASE DATE: 2008
DISTRIBUTED BY: Lionsgate & The Harvey Weinstein Company (don’t hold that against the movie)
RUNTIME: 144 minutes
SCREENWRITER: John Fusco
DIRECTOR: Rob Minkoff
GROSS REVENUE: $127,980,002 worldwide from an estimated budget of $55,000,000
IMDB SCORE: 6.6 out of 10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 64% (Audience Score: 60%)
The Plot: Jason Tripikas (Angarano) loves old Kung Fu movies. He even goes to Chinatown and gets bootlegs of untranslated movies. One day a gang forces him to get them into his favorite store so they can rob the place. (The owner, Old Hop, also does cash exchanges or something.) The old man is shot and Jason tries to escape, taking with him a staff in Hop’s care. He falls from the building and ends up in ancient China, running from soldiers of the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) and later his assassin, the white-haired witch Ni Chang (Bingbing Li, credited as Li Bing Bing–which I’m not sure helps as much as they thought). He is saved by Lu Yan (Chan, who also plays Old Hop) and his companion Golden Sparrow (Liu). Yan is practitioner of Drunken Kung Fu partly because it is also his elixr as one of the seven immortals. The staff belonged to the Monkey King (Li), whom the Jade Emperor defeated by trickery and imprisoned in stone since the Monkey King is immortal. They are met by a “silent monk” (also Li, and yes Liu will get a second role as well), who has also searched for The Seeker, the one who will find the staff and end the Emperor’s reign, signalling the return of the Jade Emperor (Deshun Wang). Jason is that seeker and Yan and the monk must teach him how to fight if the Monkey King, and the kingdom, are ever to be freed.
Why I wanted to see it: As if seeing Li and Chan together for the first (and thus far only) time wasn’t enough I really liked what I saw from the trailers. While there was no hint of time travel until the movie came out it looked amazing. The fights and effects just looked darn cool and I forget if I knew about the ties to the Monkey King legend at the time, but that helped as well.
What did I think of it?: Well that was….FRICKEN AWESOME! The story was well-crafted. The idea of trying to rescue the Monkey King and a fan of old Kung Fu movies now having to learn it just really worked for me, even though I’m not a die-hard fan of the genre. While I wouldn’t have minded if this was an homage to those old movies I don’t think it would have had the same resonance. The fights we get are very good, with some wire and special effects but it’s the natural skills of Chan and Li that take center stage. I don’t know if the other performers know martial arts but they or their stunt doubles do very well. When Angarano is on-screen during fighting scenes he fits well into Chan’s physical comedy and during training with Yan and the monk he is able to keep up as we see Jason learn how to fight.
Okay, let’s get this non-royal monkey dealt with. I know there are going to be complaints about “cultural appropriation” and I don’t know if the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and similar movies defends your position or mine but hear me out. With a movie based on Chinese mythology the people in charge probably thought having a story with an American protagonist would serve as a gateway into the mythology, a link between a culture they understand and one they don’t. This may or may not also be the reason we had the time/dimensional travel aspect as opposed to a white kid from the period, and I think they made the right choice there. Whether or not any of that’s the case I leave to those who dig into the backstage stuff. I’m more of a “final results” kind of guy with these reviews. I will agree that if the character were Chinese or even of some Chinese descent it would have worked just as well, but Jason being a big fan of these kinds of movies probably makes it easier to go along with whatever he’s going through in the Forbidden Kingdom than someone who had to learn some “respect your ancestral culture even if you’re not interested” kind of message that you would have had. I’m not against respecting your heritage, but only if you want to and find it interesting.
And Angarano is a good actor. The only other thing I’ve seen him in is Sky High and I liked him there. I also liked him here. He has good chemistry with the Chinese cast. I do wonder can Jason magically understand Chinese at some points or do the other heroes and Ni Chang speak English at times? Speaking of chemistry I don’t mind that Jason and Sparrow have a connection but don’t necessarily “get together” in the story. I don’t think they had time to properly develop a romance and I credit them for not forcing it. Sparrow has an interesting form of grammar, referring to herself as “she” rather than “I” and sometimes replacing “you” with a description, like referring to Yan as “the dao immortal” or some such. It’s actually not annoying but it’s never really explained why she talks like that. I’m not sure her revenge subplot was properly realized but I didn’t hate the ending.
Jackie Chan plays two roles in this movie, as does Li. I won’t spoil why, but they’re different reasons for each actor and their characters. I didn’t recognize Chan as Old Hop at first. I don’t know if that was praise for the makeup and acting or the fact I was watching a widescreen movie on an older television. Chan also plays the immortal Lu Yan different from how he plays Hop. Hop is old, speaks in short sentences, and hobbles along while Yan is more articulate and is a Drunken Kung-Fu master. He is playing two completely different roles and that’s how they come off.
The same goes for Jet Li, who plays the excitable Monkey King and stoic Silent Monk so differently it’s not until the Monk’s secret is revealed that I realized they were the same actor. (No, the secret is probably not what you think.) The difference between the two of them is that distinct. (And that’s how Superman pulls off the Clark Kent disguise people!) Li and Chan play off each other well, with the Monk’s more serious nature and Yan’s more relaxed personality. The comedy never feels forced and I can believe they would set aside any differences for the sake of the Kingdom. Although given the Monk’s ties to the Monkey King you’d think he’d be more used to it. Yan is still more serious than that guy.
The Jade Warlord isn’t on screen very often but he makes for a decent villain (I wonder what his plans were for those girls but I’m probably better off NOT knowing) and his battles with the Monkey King shows that Chou can at least be believable as the guy who takes down someone like Jet Li (through trickery but if you can trick the Monkey King you still kind of earn your victory). It’s his agent, Ni Chang, that I wish we could learn more about. She desires immortality, hates men, and her reaction to what she thinks is a romantic moment between Jason and Sparrow shows she might have an interesting backstory. If there’s a sequel, which I seriously doubt, I really want her to come back somehow.
Was it worth the wait?: Honestly, yes! Now I want to own the movie but given my current situation that won’t happen for a long time. The visuals, the score, the acting, the martial arts, and the story are all fantastic, with a great cast that works great together. If you haven’t seen this movie and anything I wrote sounds interesting you really should check it out. It’s just darn good!