One of my guilty pleasures is Last Action Hero in great part for its metafictional qualities. While situating itself firmly in the action hero genre, it casts a skeptical and sometimes scathing eye on the tropes and clichés of the genre itself. That commentary, pointing out the more ludicrous aspects of what we have to accept or set aside to enjoy the movie, and featuring Mr. Action Hero himself—Ahnold—is just exceptionally smart and telling. And it helps that it is a fairly interesting story in itself. That model also works for Forbidden Kingdom: while setting itself in run of higher-end martial arts epics, like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, it also comments on the genre from an insider point of view.
Meet Jason Tripitikas (Micael Angarano), lover of the old chop socky movies and fairly stereotypical geek. Jason gets his bootleg DVDs from the local pawn shop and somehow believes that knowledge of all the arcane and esoteric martial arts he has seen in those movies makes him an expert in them. And when he is blackmailed into robbing that same pawn shop and seeing the owner shot and perhaps killed by a local tough, he grabs a weapon to defend himself and flees. Unfortunately, gang members tend to be a little more athletic than nerds and he ends up being tossed off the side of a building.
…and waking up in ancient China, now dressed as a peasant and still carrying the bo staff he has picked up. He soon finds himself mired in the local politics, which have a supernatural basis for their unpleasantness. The Jade Warlord has imprisoned the immortal Monkey King (Jet Li) and as a result, the rightful ruler, the Jade Emperor, cannot return and bring good back to the land. The only way to free the Monkey King is to return his fabled weapon to him, the staff that Jason of course is carrying. Jason meets Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) who claims to be the immortal Drunken Master who decides to help Jason on his involuntary quest.
What follows is a fairly typical story of heroes on the run while the destined hero is trained in the way of magic, or in this case, martial arts. As I think about it, this quest fairly easily parallels the typical quest of high fantasy, but with a Chinese background. Jason and Lu Yan gain companions along the way, one of whom is of course a beautiful young girl, Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), for whom Jason swoons. Their path is dogged by the sinister Ni Chang (Li Bingbing) who has promised her master the Jade Warlord that she will bring him the staff and keep the Monkey King imprisoned.
As I write this I realize Forbidden Kingdom sounds very typical and perhaps even predictable. It may be those things, but it is also a lot of fun, with solid performances from all the cast. There is also a sly sense of humor throughout the film as it picks on itself and its genre; for example, when Lu Yan and their other companion, The Silent Monk (another appearance by Jet Li) train Jason to be the hero, they discuss their assumption that their savior would be Chinese. Moments like these are balanced with the brilliant choreography of Yuen Wo-Ping (The Matrix and Kill Bill among others) to provide an easy introduction to the genre of the martial arts epic for those unfamiliar with their sweep and scope and a fun ride for viewers who are familiar with the genre. To further Americanize the film, Jason returns to the modern US, no longer a geek, but a trained martial artist confident in his abilities. When the gang finds him and attempts to bully him into not going to the police to report their earlier crime, of course Jason recalls that he now knows kung fu and quickly dispatches the leader of the gang and winning the heart of the fair maiden.
I particularly like the circles that the paths of most of the main characters’ plot takes. It adds an easy predictability…a familiarity…to a story that a lot of movie goers might find very strange. There is no sweeping music, no tremendous themes or philosophy; there is only solid acting, fine cinematography and choreography, and a fun ride. It’s a kind of candy for those who know and appreciate the genre and perhaps an entry drug for those who are new to it. And seeing Jackie Chan and Jet Li together on screen is really worth it, especially since the script gives them an extended fight scene that hearkens back to those chop socky movies and them takes them to a whole new level, not in the way of The Matrix or even Kung Fu Hustle but somewhere between. You probably won’t pine to see Forbidden Kingdom again, but you won’t regret the time spent laughing and cheering for the archetypal heroes of two cultures.