Sunday, April 20, 2008

From the Archive: "The Forbidden Kingdom" Film Review

Film Rating: C

Welcome to The Archive, a comprehensive collection of reviews dating back to 2007, originally written for The Denver Post’s YourHub.Com website and print edition!  In the archive, you’ll find hundreds of movie, DVD, Blu-Ray, and TV reviews, along with other special features.  You can access the complete Archive Collection by clicking here, and read about the archive project by clicking here

Continue reading after the jump to access my original review of “The Forbidden Kingdom.”

From the Jonathan R. Lack Review Archives:
“The Forbidden Kingdom”
Originally published April 20th, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom is one of the most frustrating experiences I’ve had at the movies in a long time.  Simply put, the kung-fu action film has huge fathoms of potential that it completely ignores—the film could be an instant classic if the producers had gone in the right direction.  Instead, the film is a blend of great action and missed opportunities—one that manages to frustrate more than entertain.  

The film starts with a teenager named Jason dreaming about kung-fu—he’s a Chinese-fight-film aficionado.  Some bullies force Jason into helping them break into and rob one of Jason’s favorite stores in Chinatown.  While there, he finds an ancient staff that transports him to ancient China.  There, he meets Lu Yan, the “drunken immortal,” (Jackie Chan) who informs him that the staff belongs to the Monkey King of legend, who was imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord.  Lu and Jason head off to find the place where the King was imprisoned and give him back the staff.  Along the way, they are helped by an orphan girl named “Sparrow” and a monk portrayed by Jet Li.

As a technical achievement, this is one of the year’s best.  The special effects blend seamlessly with live-action stunts, and the choreography of the fight scenes is simply dazzling (not surprising, considering they used the choreographer of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).  The fight scenes are exciting and breathtaking, as is the gorgeous scenery that is shot with precision.  The musical score by David Buckley is one of the best scores of the year—it has a very oriental sound, but is also upbeat and fast, and feels like an essential part of the fight scenes.

Every other aspect of the film underwhelms.  The biggest draw of the film is the legendary match-up of Jackie Chan and Jet Li—their first scene together is a brawl that is nothing short of epic.  If only it had stayed that way.  The two barely interact for the rest of the film, except for some short exchanges of dialogue.  The two talents are used well separately, but when you have both of these men in a movie together, they should be used in combination more often.

The film’s biggest flaw is in its characterization, or lack thereof.  The movie has no idea who the main character is—Jason is introduced first, and I think he is intended to be the main character.  His scenes in Boston at the beginning are very good, but only scratch the surface of what I would define as characterization.  We only see him interact with bullies and the shopkeeper.  We don’t see his family or friends, or how he behaves in normal society.  He’s sent off to ancient China very quickly, and the audience can’t empathize with him—something essential to a story like this.  There’s no character development on his part for the rest of the film; in the middle third, he has almost no dialogue.  This is supposed to be a hero’s journey story, but besides gaining some good kung-fu moves, his character doesn’t change.

Jackie Chan’s character Lu is the most vivid, but not because of the writing.  Chan takes his material and sucks it dry—this is a good thing, and he’s the best part of the movie.  Jet Li’s character is just a martial-arts stereotype.  I don’t think we ever even learn his name.  The Jade Warlord, the villain of the film, is seen only a few times before the finale, and is never very menacing.  This causes the audience to follow a group of characters on a journey against a villain we know almost nothing about, and suspense is thrown out the window.

If the characters had been developed, this movie would be darn near perfect.  An extra ten minutes with Jason in Boston, and more character scenes throughout the movie would make this film feel like The NeverEnding Story.  Instead, it feels like Kill Bill for families, distilled to pure action.  The problem is, the film does hint at character development—the ending is like something out of another movie, and suggests that Jason changed quite a bit on his journey.  I suspect lots of material was cut from the final film, which makes the movie feel uneven.  Most of the time, it seems like a movie intent only on providing pure, unfiltered action (like Kill Bill); but it never goes all the way in that direction, and tries at brief glimpses of character development.  It’s just uneven.  Whoever edited the movie needed to figure out what kind of movie they were trying to edit.  If it had gone 100 percent one way or the other, it would be much more enjoyable.

It’s a very frustrating experience.  Yes, the action is top notch, and almost worth the price of admission.  But the fact that it hints at a much better movie makes it hard to watch.  It should have been more, especially for the first pairing of Chan and Li.  I give it a mild recommendation—if you can overlook the missed opportunities, then you should have good time.  Otherwise, it’s just frustrating. 

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