Jackie Chan as a drunken immortal! Jet Li playing the Monkey King! Action choreography by Yuen Woo-ping! How could it possibly go wrong? As it turns out, quite easily – all you need to do is hand over the creative reins to a couple of white Americans who enjoy the surface gloss of Hong Kong action cinema but display very little evidence of understanding its soul. The Forbidden Kingdom (2008) compounds its sins by making the two stars take a back seat to the charmless white 20-year-old lead and sandwiching the more interesting material within a hopelessly hackneyed “real world” framing story.
The filmmakers attempt to establish their credibility right from the outset by putting a range of their influences prominently on display. Jason (Michael Angarano) wakes from a dream of the Monkey King (Jet Li) battling the heavenly hosts, at which point we see that the Shaw Brothers classic The Monkey Goes West [Xi you ji] (1966) is playing on his TV. As he gets up the camera moves in to provide a close-up of the all the martial arts movie posters adorning his walls. The opening credits then run over a montage of elements from those posters, showing off many of the cool movies the character/director has seen. Unfortunately these fine examples simply serve to highlight the vacuity at the heart of the ensuing story – and the staging of Jason’s widescreen Monkey King dream looks noticeably less interesting than the compressed image of the fight scene extract running across Jason’s TV screen. (Just how long has Jason been asleep anyway? The implication is that he fell asleep watching the film, but he can’t be more than an hour into the 112 minute running time and he’s clearly not getting up any earlier or later than normal. And exactly how does he watch movies on a TV positioned at the head of his bed when it’s clearly angled for optimum viewing by the camera operator at the foot of the bed?)
Jason pops down to his favourite hangout, a pawn shop owned by the elderly Hop (Jackie Chan buried under old age makeup). The screenwriter appears to be a bit hazy on how a pawn shop operates, because this one regularly imports DVDs of subtitled Hong Kong action films. Jason is very excited that they have subtitles – which I thought was weird until I remembered how heavily the American experience of these films is filtered through bad dubbing. (I still find it difficult to understand the mindset of “fans” of these films who complain bitterly when their latest pristine Blu Ray upgrades with freshly translated subtitles don’t also include the incompetent hack job dubbing tracks which contributed to the wider public perception that these films are disposable trash. But I digress.) Jason wants to know whether Hop has any early Shaw Brothers films – which, when you consider that they made roughly 1000 films in a 30-year period and Jason seems to have one particular film in mind, is a meaninglessly vague question for the enthusiast he’s supposed to be. He’s excited when Hop tells him that he has a rare bootleg of an early Bruce Lee film. What is the identity of this obscure cinematic gem, you ask? Enter the Dragon (1973) – only the most successful martial arts movie ever made, and famously the *last* film to be completed by Bruce Lee before his untimely death! This is such a glaringly obvious mistake that I can’t believe the writer is responsible – it smacks of the ham-fisted intervention of Harvey Weinstein, the US distributor, somebody who’s never been afraid to underestimate the intelligence of the American people. (Jason’s other purchase is The Bride with White Hair [Bak fat moh lui zyun] (1993) – a choice for which I was inclined to give the filmmakers more credit until I realised the quality of their pending “homage”.)
Jason attempts to chat up a random woman whose importance to the story can be seen by her listing in the credits as Southie Girl (Juana Collignon in her only screen role). His attempt to impress her by pretending he knows kung fu goes down in flames when the local gang turns up to hassle him. Gang leader Lupo (Morgan Benoit) is a one-note racist rage machine, one of those delightful people who is happy to learn Asian martial arts for the purposes of terrorising others but sees no contradiction in spitting on the rest of their culture and treating them like lesser human beings. Having somehow got it into his head that Hop’s rundown pawn shop (which is completely lacking in security features beyond a single flimsy-looking chain lock) will have plenty of cash on the premises, Lupo and his gang bully Jason into helping them gain access to the store. Everything goes badly, Lupo shoots Hop, and Jason ends up falling off the roof clutching the Monkey King’s golden staff.
Rather than falling to his death, Jason wakes up in a vaguely defined “ancient China” which is either far in his own past or some sort of magical alternate dimension (or both). Unable to speak the language and attacked by soldiers who appear to be after his staff, he’s rescued by a drunk old man who just happens to be Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), one of the Eight Immortals of Taoist tradition. Lu Yan fills him in on the backstory, an insultingly sanitised rewrite of the Monkey King’s rebellion against the Jade Emperor. Gone is the the story of Monkey eating all the Peaches of Immortality and causing havoc in Heaven – here the Jade Emperor (Wang Deshun) views him instead as a cheeky monkey to indulge, instructing the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) to grant him a meaningless title and send him on his way. Where the original story saw Monkey fighting an epic battle against the noble warlord Erlang Shen and his Heavenly Hosts, using his talent for trickery to aid him in battle before his ultimate defeat and imprisonment under a mountain, The Forbidden Kingdom paints a very different picture. This version of Erlang instead ignores the Jade Emperor’s instructions and challenges Monkey to a duel, gaining his victory by the simple trick of promising not to use his powers if Monkey drops his staff. Monkey agrees and the Jade Warlord immediately cheats, turning him into stone before directing his forces against the human world for some never-explained reason. Jason is apparently the Chosen One who must return Monkey’s staff to its owner (although how the staff, last seen embedded in the floor of Erlang’s palace, escaped his custody and ended up in the future/another world is also never explained).
Now seems like a good time to bring up Jason’s full name. Jason’s surname indicates that he’s of Greek descent – yes, a Greek hero named Jason, very original I’m sure. But just what is his not-at-all-made-up-honest surname? Tripitikas. Yes, they’ve decided to name him after Tripitaka, the Buddhist priest who travels to India accompanied by the Monkey King in the original story. While there is a fine tradition in Chinese film of depicting Tripitaka (aka Tang Sazang) as a comical figure, turning him into an idiot white boy whose response to being confronted with people he can’t understand is to repeat his words LOUD-LY AND SLOW-LY is just insulting. Although this does at least result in Lu Yan hitting the cosmic translator switch, Jason’s continued expectation that his companions will understand his film references is just stupid, as is his inexplicable belief that he can learn martial arts at the snap of a finger without any hard work. (Did he ever watch an entire martial arts film in his life? Some of them are 90% training sequence!) The filmmakers did at least choose to hedge their bets with the Tripitaka role, bringing back Jet Li as Silent Monk – meaning that, in a way, Monkey is joining the quest as a pseudo-Tripitaka to free himself. And wow am I grateful that they made this choice, because their interpretation of Monkey is TERRIBLE – he just bounces around randomly, makes stupid facial expressions, and wiggles his fingers to perform magic tricks. It’s a complete waste of a perfectly good Jet Li. Thankfully Monkey is barely in the movie and Li spends most of his time as Silent Monk (paradoxically a speaking role), putting on some flawless martial arts displays and playing very effectively against Chan. One of the most delightful scenes in the film has Li and Chan warring over which of them is going to train Jason, who ends up being treated like a rag doll they’re fighting over, being pulled every which way and pummeled mercilessly. (I choose to interpret this as an exercise in trolling, taking the opportunity to punish the idiot American for cultural insensitivity and stealing their limelight.)
Rounding out the cast we have two female characters – one good, one bad – both bearing little resemblance to their supposed inspirations. Joining Jason’s team is Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), a martial artist and pipa player who despatches her foes with jade darts and is on a revenge kick against the sleazy Jade Warlord for murdering her family. Although her insistence on referring to herself in the third person (she/her instead of I/my) could be viewed as a distancing technique to separate herself from her personal trauma, the script makes no attempt to sell that interpretation – it comes across instead more like a misguided attempt at exoticism. With depressing inevitability (and very little attempt at justification in the screenplay), she falls in love with Jason before succumbing to a perfunctory end in order to provide Jason with a “tragic hero” moment (appropriating her failed attempt at revenge for himself). Apparently intended as a tribute to Golden Swallow, as portrayed by Cheng Pei-pei in the lead role of the far better film Come Drink With Me [Da zui xia] (1966), the two characters share absolutely nothing in common beyond their gender and names. Seeking the golden staff on behalf of the main villain is Ni Chang (Li Bingbing), turning the misunderstood antihero played by Brigitte Lin in the aforementioned The Bride with White Hair into a caricature evil henchwoman after the elixir of immortality (something in which I have difficulty believing the original character would have had the slightest interest). Although both actresses play their roles with dignity, they’re poorly served by the script and deserve better.
Once the Monkey King has been restored (and issued some uncharacteristic words of wisdom), Jason returns to his own time, having miraculously survived a several story drop into a junkyard. There’s a token return to being beaten up by Lupo before he suddenly realises that he’s now a proficient martial artist and kicks his ass. The gang runs off; he discovers that Hop has survived being shot (because both Jackie Chan characters are, to nobody’s surprise, the same person and thus immortal); and a reincarnated Golden Sparrow tells him he’s cool (bleurgh).
Director Rob Minkoff is best known for The Lion King (1994) and Stuart Little (1999). A glance over the rest of his CV suggests that his talents lie primarily with making animated features, although in this instance I didn’t find his mixture of live action with CGI to be particularly thrilling. It’s often difficult to tell where to draw the line between the work of director and action director – it can veer wildly in both directions – but while Yuen Woo-ping’s action direction is largely of good quality, there are sequences which fall flat due to editing choices and I’m tempted to ascribe these failures of judgement to Minkoff. He certainly has some notable lapses in stitching together scenes with a consistent sense of place. A chase through an urban environment ends with the characters bursting through the wall of a building into… a forest? A fight scene taking place entirely inside a temple cuts away to a scene of two other characters watching the fight from an impossible external viewpoint. Jason falls from the top of a building into a yard which doesn’t match the view from above. After noisily fighting off the gang members in a dark and secluded location, he pops around to the other side of the building which is crowded with police, ambulance attendants and assorted bystanders (incidentally suggesting that this poverty-stricken neighbourhood has an astonishingly rapid response time from emergency services). The reincarnated Golden Sparrow, who has been hanging out in the crowd watching Hop being transferred into an ambulance, tells Jason: “I saw what you did. I live across the street.” No you bloody didn’t! If you did, the police would’ve seen it too. (Unless you mean you saw him approach the building with the gang members who followed him into the shop and shot the proprietor? Because if you thought that was cool you are seriously messed up.) Arrgh! Is it too much to ask for basic compentency in establishing a physical environment which makes sense? Disturbingly, Minkoff has been announced as the director of the upcoming Chinese Odyssey, another version of the Monkey story scripted by James V. Hart, the writer of Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992) who grafted a ridiculous “lost love reincarnation” plot onto the original story. I would pay good money to ensure that this project never gets off the ground.
As for screenwriter John Fusco, his most significant screen credit was (and remains) Young Guns (1988) and its sequel Young Guns II (1990). Much of the rest of his writing career has been forgettable, although I note that he was also responsible for the disappointing Netflix Original sequel Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny [Wo hu cang long 2: Qing ming bao jian] (2016). I was astonished to discover that he had also been a sparring partner of Jet Li, who was full of praise for Fusco’s work as a screenwriter, noting that he had succeeded in incorporating a rough version of Li’s personal understanding of martial arts and Buddhism into the film. With all due respect to Mr Li, while he’s technically correct that Fusco has done this, cramming this information into clumsy dialogue which doesn’t flow with the material around it is hardly an example of skillful screenwriting – and raising the idea that revenge rebounds upon the one seeking revenge is all very well, but choosing to illustrate this by literally having the character’s attack bounce back upon themselves is so leadenly heavy-handed that it’s a wonder the gravitational imbalance didn’t create a singularity causing the film to collapse in upon itself.
Since Jackie Chan and Jet Li need no introduction and I have nothing good to say about the white actors, I’ll skip straight on to the supporting cast. Liu Yifei aka Crystal Liu built her career in fantasy TV before transitioning into film and recording two albums, one single from which was chosen as the end credits theme for Powerpuff Girls Z [Demashita! Pawapafu Gāruzu Zetto] (2006-7). Making her English language debut in The Forbidden Kingdom, she has since become better known in the western world for playing the lead in Disney’s live action remake of Mulan (2020). Collin Chou has been making films since 1987, but western audiences will know him as Seraph from The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003). Li Bingbing (my senior by two days) is more familiar to me from the excellent World War 2 spy thriller The Message [Fengsheng] (2009) and the Tang Dynasty action romp Detective Dee: The Mystery of the Phantom Flame [Di renjie: Tong tian di guo] (2010). She turned up more recently opposite Jason Statham in the prehistoric shark film The Meg (2018).
The Forbidden Kingdom is a deeply flawed film which could be significantly improved by a top-to-bottom rewrite eliminating the modern American framing sequence and the godawful character of Jason – although even then its sanitised take on the Monkey King would leave a bad taste in the mouth. That elements of the film still work at all is down to the professional approach of the non-white cast as a whole; the charms of Jackie Chan and Jet Li in particular; and the action choreography of Yuen Woo-ping.