There is something compelling about the idea that any one of us might, at any moment, be summoned/dragged/pulled out of this world and into another — a world of adventure, magic, mystery, and heroism. The motif shows up over and over again in everything from fairy tales to Stephen King novels. What is so special about the idea? Perhaps the notion that we’re meant for more than humdrum lives, or perhaps we simply like our escapism served up with the idea that we could be next….
The Forbidden Kingdom stars Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Yifei Liu, and some white kid Michael Angarano, who have to work together to return the Monkey King’s staff to the Five Elemental Mountains to free the Monkey King and end the reign of the evil Jade Warlord. But first we meet generic white teenager Jason Tripitikas (Angarano) in South Boston, where he wakes from a dream of the Monkey King fighting the Jade Army. At first glance, it would seem that the kid simply watches too many kung fu movies, and the glimpse we get inside his room emphasizes his obsession with all things kung fu.
Jason goes to the local pawn shop to find some more action movies to feed his obsession, where he trades jokes with Jackie Chan wearing all of the age makeup. He gets some DVDs and heads home, flirting with some neighborhood ladies. All is well until a bunch of ruffians show up and it turns out that watching kung fu movies does not help prepare one to stop bullies. Once the bullies realize that Jason knows Old Hop at the pawn shop, they use him to break into the shop after hours and try to steal all the money. Jason shows that he is a terrible person for not taking a bit of a beating but instead going along with it to get his friend robbed. Things go even more wrong when the lead-thug pulls out a gun and shoots the old guy, who gives Jason the staff and tells him he must return it to its rightful owner. Jason runs from the thugs and ends up on the roof, and as the lead thug threatens to shoot him, he’s magically dragged backward off the roof, and falls for a long long time.
He wakes up again, but this time he’s in a tiny village in the Forbidden Kingdom. Before he can understand what’s going on, he’s chased by Jade soldiers until he runs into the Drunken Master Lu Yan (Chan), who fights off the soldiers and then gives him the magical ability to understand Chinese (I guess) by yelling at him that he’s not listening. This shortcut at least allows the characters to understand each other for the rest of the movie.
Lu Yan takes him to a teahouse and infodumps the history of the Monkey King and his rivalry with the Jade Warrior, the Jade Emperor’s very unperceptive dismissal of the matter before he goes off to meditate for 500 years (okay man, if you want to be a hermit, be a hermit, but if you’re the emperor you should probably do some emperoring). The Jade Warrior tricked the Monkey King into putting down his staff and then turned him into stone. At the last second the Monkey King threw his staff out the window and through time or other worlds (within the movie it all seems to be treated as another world, though summaries of the movie suggest that it’s all time travel, so take your pick).
They are overheard by Golden Sparrow (Liu), who helps them escape when they are attacked by more soldiers. Lu Yan gives them directions to the Elemental Mountains, implies that he’s an immortal who needs wine to be immortal (actually Sparrow does the implying here, and Lu Yan goes along with it), and Jason convinces him to come with them and teach him kung fu. They’ve been at this for a few days — with a nice reference to a traditional Zen story about emptying your mind to learn new things — when the staff is stolen by Gandalf the White the Silent Monk (Li), who takes it to a temple and sits meditating over it.
Lu Yan finds him there and then Jackie Chan and Jet Li face off for the first time in cinematic history! Really, if you don’t see this movie for any other reason, it’s pretty great to see their styles blend. They fight to a standstill, and then Jason catches the staff, which for some reason convinces the Silent Monk that he is the seeker from the prophecy. (Because it reverberated slightly when the kid caught it? I don’t know. On a rewatch the logic doesn’t hold up so well. I’m not convinced they ever needed the kid after this point but hey, it’s not my movie.)
So now the gang’s all here, the scarecrow, the cowardly lion, and the tin man, so they continue on their way to reach the Elemental Mountains. Meanwhile, the Jade Warlord has hired Danaerys Targaryen a witch, Ni Chang (Bingbing Li) — and a nod to The Bride With White Hair, which Jason mentions as one of the movies he bought from the pawn shop, nicely done there. She tracks them down after they cross the desert and Jason lives through a torturous kung fu montage, the best of which is Chan and Li using Angarano as the comedy prop in some pretty classic Jackie Chan style fighting. We also get more background on Sparrow, whose entire village was wiped out by the Jade Warlord, but the Silent Monk (considerably more talkative by now) warns her that vengeance is bad.
About this time, Sparrow and Jason have a tender moment, and of course right then, Ni Chang finds them and harshly criticizes them for having feelings. She offers Jason passage home if he’ll turn over the staff to her, but he refuses. The four travelers fight Ni Chang and her Jade Goons, racing away and escaping, only to have Lu Yan struck down by a long range arrow from Ni Chang. Can’t help but admire shooting like that, as it’s apparently hours later when he finally gets struck. The others whisk Lu Yan to a temple and it turns out that he’s not immortal, he just really likes wine.
He’s lying there dying and the Silent Monk and Jason argue (with staffs) about the best time to go to the Elemental Mountains — Jason doesn’t think they have time to waste, since his friend and teacher is dying, and the Silent Monk thinks their best chance of success is to wait two days until the new moon, so they can sneak up in the dark. Sparrow tells Jason that he’s grown a lot as a warrior, which inspires him to take the staff to the Jade Warlord in exchange for the elixir of immortality to save Lu Yan. Again, can’t really understand what this kid is thinking, this seems like a terrible plan. The witch escorts him to the Jade Warlord, who makes Jason and the witch fight to the death for the elixir since he’s promised it to her already. Jason is pretty outmatched and their fight is pretty boring, oh well. For some reason the warlord stops Ni Chang from striking the death blow, which gives Jason’s friends time to come to his rescue. They show up, closely followed by all the trainees at the monastery, who have also dragged Lu Yan up the mountain on his deathbed, presumably for convenient access to the elixir. A bit more scuffling and Lu Yan gets the elixir and joins the fray. The Silent Monk and the Jade Warlord fight for a while, and then Sparrow decides to have her moment and kill the warlord, which backfires because revenge is bad. Then Jason uses her jade pin to kill the warlord, which doesn’t backfire because revenge is only bad if you’re a girl, I guess. She dies. Everyone else lives, and the Jade Emperor returns for some reason, because at this point things are pretty well fine. However, he sends Jason home.
Jason returns the same moment he left (giving some credence to the time travel theorists) and fights off the thugs from before. He returns to the pawn shop to find that the owner will be okay, because, he hints, he’s immortal, and therefore we are led to believe that he’s actually Lu Yan. After that Jason runs into a girl who looks exactly like Sparrow, which makes sense because, as a young lad who’s earned his chaps, next step is getting the girl.
Jackie Chan tells us that as one story ends, another begins, and we fade out on some beautiful music. The end!
Let’s break it down for the Wonderful World of Forbidden Kingdom:
- It’s gorgeous.
- Plenty of time for tea and contemplation.
- You might just get that training montage you’ve always wanted, to magically become a badass.
- People may try to kill you just because of a stick you brought with you.
- Good luck if you aren’t male.
- You’ll never be quite sure if you went to another world or traveled in time.
So overall it’s a better movie, visually, than a great story — the plot holes gape just a little too wide, especially on repeated viewing. Ummm, why is the kingdom forbidden, exactly? I’m uncomfortable with the White Savior motif, which is only tolerable because Jason’s pretty much useless. More damaging is the concept that the Everyman is a white male from the United States. Of course this is a loose adaptation of Journey to the West and it’s adapted by American filmmakers, so that doesn’t surprise me but… ehh, we’ve done that song and dance so many times that it doesn’t matter if it’s done well or not at this point: it’s old. Still, it’s fun to see Chan and Li together, and the cinematography is beautiful. If you want a decent kung fu movie you can skim through the lazy filler plot (I was knitting). If you want an excellent other-world-ly adventure… there are other worlds than these….