Put 2 of the largest Asian stars together in an action comedy may be a no-brainer, but it sure took long for someone to finally greenlight and get the project off and running. But when word was that Jet Li and Jackie Chan were to square off in a Journey to the West type of story, I guess that sent shivers down the spines of their fans, wondering who would play which character, especially the coveted role of the Monkey King. While I shall not reveal it here, it again is safe to say that like match-ups, there are obviously no clear winner, and The Forbidden Kingdom plays it safe too with a cop out of a fight between the two masters.
But surprise, the story did give what fans were after, watching both Li and Chan pit their choreographed skills against each other in nothing short of at least 10 minutes, aided by plenty of wirework, and a variety of parodying moves from classic kung-fu inspired by animals and insects (looks like Kung Fu Panda has been pawned). I thought it was extremely interesting to see Chan employ the use of Drunken Fists, which was utilized by one of the characters he has in his filmography - that of Wong Fei-hung, in which Jet Li made it his own under Tsui Hark's direction of the popular Once Upon a Time in China series. Li though also goes back early into his filmography, and stars as a monk, where a role in Shaolin Temple provided him his first wind at stardom. After that had been done, this works more of a collaborative storyline rather than an adversarial one, with that honours going to Collin Chou (to continue the degrees of separation, he was chosen after Jet Li rejected the role of Seraph in the Matrix sequels), as the envious and devious Jade Warlord, whose cunning saw the stone imprisonment of the Monkey King, in a plot spinoff not quite like the novels and the television series we're so familiar with.
In fact, that's not just the only change or adaptation that made it to The Forbidden Kingdom, and here's where John Fusco's story runs riot. The opening credits already gave you an inkling of what's to come, with plenty of fanboy-dom in the paying of homage to great martial arts actors from Bruce Li, Gordon Liu and Cheng Pei-pei, to cult movies like 36th Chamber and One Armed Swordsman. And liberties were taken with characters in the movie as well, with the showpiece from Li Bingbing as Bride With White Hair (She's no Lin Ching-hsia though) and Liu Yifei, more popularly known for her Little Dragon Role in the Return to the Condor Heroes television series, now here as Golden Swallow from Come Drink With Me (She's no Cheng Pei-pei either), and not Little Swallow as many in the audience had assumed.
I have to give credit to the script for putting so many Chinese characters from martial arts novels, movies and folklore together, and giving it a refreshing spin through the infusion of creative imagination within something so established, yet doesn't make a monkey (pardon the pun) out of it concept-wise, but the delivery still managed to trudge on the muddle of cliches abound. You have a relative unknown to this part of the world, Michael Angarano, as Jason Tripitakas (quite obvious reference, the name), the traveller from our world to the fantasy world, as the Chosen One who will toss the one ring into the fires of Mordor. OK, so he has in his posession the magical cudgel of the Monkey King, found in a little Chinatown shop of horrors, the sort where you can find Gremlins, and have to travel to the 5 Elements Mountain to return it to the rightful owner. To aid in his quest, Fate assembles for him the Fellowship of the Staff - Lu Yan (Chan) the drunken immortal, The Silent Monk (Li) and Golden Swallow (Liu) who has a personal vendetta of her own.
There are some nifty special effects and martial arts choreography here, which is always a delight, though at times they do lapse into the generic, and had to have things like a bamboo forest to lend credibility and self-respectability. The villains too were pretty weak, and Collin Chou's main villain was reduced, besides the fight sequences, to nothing more menacing that Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa's Shang Tsung in Mortal Kombat. With Jackie Chan sharing the limelight with either Chris Rock or Owen Wilson in the Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon/Knights franchise, there's no doubt who's the funnyman. Here, Chan seemed to relish the opportunity to play jester, and you can see that coming across in very obvious fashion, though Li does have his moments out of being stoic, to deliver, of all things, well timed toilet humour.
And there's plenty to laugh too at the movie, and this might serve as its biggest bugbear. The characters speak English for the most parts (no doubt to whom this movie was made for), and there's really no rocket science trying to think up of excuses to do so, they just do, and quite abruptly and clumsily too. While Chan did seem comfortable with it after his stint at Hollywood, and Liu Yifei surprisingly very fluent, Jet Li seemed to need more work (jia you ok?) as I could've sworn he said "speed, actually and power". The dialogue also lapsed into chop-suey talk with circle of fortune cookie riddles being thrown about, and the one that took the cake came from Liu Yifei (listen out for it!), coupled with the fact that her character tends to talk in third person perspective, which is puzzling.
Howeer, The Forbidden Kingdom still managed to deliver an entertaining ride from start to end for the most parts, and if you can get pass the cliches and unintentionally comical moments. Fans of the martial arts genre will have a field day in identifying the little bits and pieces of references that pepper the movie, so to this group of fans, don't miss this movie!