The Forbidden Kingdom (Rob Minkoff, 2008)
The Forbidden Kingdom marks the first on-screen team-up of Jackie Chan and Jet Li's, two of Hong Kong's most internationally-bankable superstars. However, all promise of being superbly entertained gets thrown out the window because film, instead of being helmed by Hong Kong's roster of directors (who've had experience working in Hollywood) like Tsui Hark, Ronny Yu, Wilson Yip or Benny Chan, is directed by Rob Minkoff. Minkoff directed the two Stuart Little films (1999, 2002), the horrendous The Haunted Mansion (2003), among a few other movies. The problem with Minkoff is that he has no real sense of why kung fu movies are so fascinating. Instead of concentrating on the spectacular acrobatics and stunts (which Chan and Li would be more willing to perform), he goes on into making a film that is as colorful as a pack of Skittles and as dumbing as an entire day watching the Disney Channel.
The plot is your standard The Wizard of Oz-derivative, where the young hero gets spirited away to another land to accomplish a mission, helped of course by a few of the land's friendlier natives. The young hero here is Jason (Michael Angarano), oft-bullied Boston native whose dreams are composed of vivid recreations of the kung fu flicks he regularly watches. He is drawn to a mysterious staff he chances upon in his favorite Chinatown store. The same staff transports him to mythical China, where the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) rules tyrannically while everyone awaits for the prophesied boy who will return the staff to the Monkey King (Li) and restore order in the world. With the help of a Taoist immortal Lu Yan (Chan), a mysterious monk (Li), vengeful Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), Jason travels to the Jade Warlord's castle to complete the prophecy and return home.
Unable to muster the competency and imagination to mount a rousing kung fu-fantasy epic, Minkoff makes do with aping under the guise of influence. The Forbidden Kingdom has a little bit of everything in the Hong Kong section of your nearest video rental store. There's Chan's reprise of his fighting style in Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping, 1978); the Golden Sparrow is a character popularized by Pei-Pei Cheng in Come Drink With Me (King Hu, 1966) and Golden Sparrow (Chang Cheh, 1968); Li Bingbing's white-haired witch is an obvious reference to Brigitte Lin's star-turning turn in The Bride With White Hair (Ronny Yu, 1993) and its sequel The Bride With White Hair II (Ronny Yu & David Wu, 1993); there are scenes that echo Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark, 1983), Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Ang Lee, 2000), and a few other popular Hong Kong titles.
I must admit that the film's geeky fascination with Hong Kong pop culture is endearing, but the endearment quickly wears off when the film jumps from one fight scene to another with reckless abandon, supposedly showcasing the talents of its two Hong Kong superstars but only succeeds in showcasing the director's deficiencies. Despite a team of effective artists and technicians including cinematographer Peter Pau (who lensed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, glitzy Hong Kong musicale Perhaps Love (Peter Chan, 2005), and beautifully shot yet disappointing The Promise (Chen Kaige, 2005)), action choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (who directed Jackie Chan in many of his earlier films and has made a successful career choreographing fight scenes for several Hollywood films), and art director Eric Lam (who effectively recreated Hong Kong and Shanghai during the Japanese occupation in Lust, Caution (Ang Lee, 2007)), Minkoff was not able to make all the elements cohere.
The humor is quite corny, far cornier than the slapstick humor which paved for Chan's indubitable charms. Li is a very stiff comedian and fares better when kicking, punching, and jumping rather than when he's exchanging witty retorts with his co-star. For all the hype that this film collaboration is getting, the result is rather infuriating. Even their inevitable face-off inside an ancient temple lacks the requisite kineticism, that cinematic spark, to even be remotely fascinating. Thus, their most memorable moment together turns out to be in the director's tasteless attempt to get laughs out of the audience, where Chan comes face to face with Li's urination. All in all, the promises that the idea of Chan and Li working on a film together fizzled right from the get-go.