Friday, October 17, 2008

Friday's Featured Film - 10/17/08

New movies are usually released to theaters every Friday, but who’s got 10 bucks these days to drop on a movie that may well be a load of crap? Given those odds, each Friday I offer an alternative on DVD that you can rent at your local video store (or in some cases, avoid at all costs). Some will be new releases, others you may have to hunt for, but all of them are available to light up your small screen should it be a lazy Friday night.

The Forbidden Kingdom

As you can tell if you’re a regular reader of Friday’s Featured Films (and thank you for your support, both of you), Heather and I are fans of the recent revival of Chinese wuxia films such as Hero and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. We were somewhat intrigued, then, when we first saw trailers for The Forbidden Kingdom, a new fantasy adventure that brings together martial arts superstars Jackie Chan and Jet Li for the first time. Our interest rose further after the film opened to mostly positive reviews. A couple weeks ago, we finally got the chance to check the movie out on DVD. While we didn’t love it, it wasn’t totally devoid of charm, either, and for those of you who are fans of martial arts fantasy and are looking for an appropriate film to share with your kids, it might be worth a rental.

The movie tells the story of Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), a teenager from a rough neighborhood in Boston who idolizes kung-fu stars. He spends much of his time hanging out in a store in Chinatown run by Hop (Chan in old-man guise) where he rents endless amounts of wuxia DVDs. Outside of this world, however, he is a loner, and frequently the target of a band of bullies in the neighborhood. Everything changes one night when a mistake and an ensuing tragedy has him running for his life after Hop gives him a mysterious staff that he tells Jason to take to its rightful owner. After a fall, Jason wakes up in another world resembling ancient China, where he is attacked by a group of warriors who see his staff. He is saved by a drunken traveler (Chan again), who tells him that the staff he holds is part of a legendary prophecy. It belongs to the Monkey King (Li), a fabled warrior cursed and imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), who now rules the land with an iron fist. The traveler tells Jason that he must take the staff to Five Elements Mountain, defeat the Jade Warlord and free the Monkey King, restoring the land to peace.

As you can likely tell by the plot description – this is an American film, not a Chinese production like Hero or Crouching Tiger. Those who hate subtitles will be happy with the movie’s English dialogue and American audiences will find a story more tailored to their conventions. In fact, though Disney didn’t produce the film, it can perhaps best be described as a Disney-fied wuxia film. The fantasy and combat remain, but at the core is a story about a young man who takes a fantastical journey to discover who he truly is. While the film’s American nature will be a plus for some, I found it a bit of a negative. The emotion and visual beauty so characteristic of Chinese wuxia simply isn’t present here. The film’s story feels flat, and the characters seem very one-dimensional and predictable. The acting is uneven – Chan brings his tremendous charm to the film, but Li really feels out of place. The film does do some things well, though. Choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping (Crouching Tiger, Kill Bill, The Matrix) brings his trademark action to the film, and some of the fight scenes are incredible to watch. Any martial arts fan will surely get a kick out of watching Jackie Chan and Jet Li go toe-to-toe. This movie is pretty family-friendly, steering clear of any profanity or explicit sexuality. It’s hard these days to find an action/adventure film that the whole family can enjoy together, and so The Forbidden Kingdom deserves some credit for being one. The violence might be too intense for younger kids, but overall the movie is pretty tame. Though we really weren’t big fans, the movie is enjoyable enough that it might make for a good rental for action fans with families who would like a movie to watch that doesn’t require sending the kids to bed first. For the average moviegoer? Well, it’s not great, but it’s not bad either. - **1/2 (out of four)

The Forbidden Kingdom is rated PG-13 for sequences of martial arts action and some violence.

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