[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
Certain events in life seem to just line up perfectly when looking in the rearview mirror. Who could have known that in 2004, I’d begin my journey into the depths of Hong Kong cinema just a few short years before Jackie Chan and Jet Li would begin work on their first collaboration? After falling in love with Chan’s eclectic style and Li’s extreme precision in high school, it was shocking to hear during my college years that the duo would finally be starring in a film together after decades of solo projects. They seemed so far removed from each other, yet also so bizarrely close that you wonder why it never happened sooner.
Titled The Forbidden Kingdom, I honestly don’t remember much else about the marketing leading up to this release. All I needed to know was Jackie Chan and Jet Li were in the film and I was there. With the backing of some American companies (namely, the Weinstein Company…ew), this film was set to take more of a western tone than the movies I was familiar with. Would it be as terrible as Chan and Li’s Hollywood productions or would there be something deeper beneath the surface?
The first impression the film gives you is more of the latter. Starting with a dream sequence that puts Li into the shoes of the Chinese mythical hero The Monkey King, you get a sense that the fight sequences were the star of the show here. Choreographed by Yuen Woo-ping, who had become the go-to guy for Hollywood action following The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, it evokes a very wuxia-like style with dudes flying through the air and battling atop a very precarious mountain.
Surprisingly, Li gets to show off a different side of himself here. I’ve never really pegged him as a comedic actor, but his take on The Monkey King fits in perfectly with what the character is. Laughing, fighting nonchalantly, and acting like an imbecile, it’s honestly amazing how good Li is here. The good times don’t last, though, as the dream sequence ends and we’re cut to reality in South Boston. In comes Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), the hero of his story and a character that doesn’t really have much of a narrative arc.
An avid lover of martial arts films, Jason’s room is littered with posters of Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest films. The kid goes to sleep with films playing on his DVD player and even practices a little kung fu on the side. I’m not sure why we needed this movie to be grounded in modern-day America, but the intro credits sequence is fucking amazing. Displaying actors’ names over the posters of a ton of classic Hong Kong films, you really get the impression that the filmmakers truly do love the genre. It’s just a shame that the story has to be anchored to such a generic kid.
After perusing a local pawn shop for some new films and chatting with the local shop owner (Chan in old-man makeup) to learn about a mythical staff in the storage room, Jason runs into some thugs in the neighborhood that beat the shit out of him and demand he get them access to the pawnshop at night. Being friends with the owner, the task is simple, but things go sideways real quick. Those thugs shoot the pawnshop owner and proceed to chase after Jason. Jason grabs the staff and attempts to get away, but then falls off the damn roof of the building.
From there, he gets transported into ancient China and the real movie begins. First off, I must stress that I didn’t remember a whole lot about The Forbidden Kingdom from nearly 13 years ago. I don’t actually own the movie and have only watched it once in theaters. I remember some of the co-stars (who we’ll get to later) and that the Chan Vs. Li fight was good, but that was it. At the time of release, I wasn’t as well versed with Chinese history, so I had no idea this film took inspiration from the classical novel Journey to the West.
Upon rewatching, the entire sequence with The Monkey King made more sense to me. The actual plot of that novel is nowhere to be found here, but the ancient setting and more fantastical fight scenes are all part and parcel for the famous piece of literature. The Forbidden Kingdom feels like an epilogue of sorts, or possibly an addendum to the mythos established in that novel. The importance of the staff is certainly made clear to viewers, but without knowledge of Journey to the West, you may wonder why everyone and their mother is so eager to get hands-on it.
Anyway, Jason wakes up in garb that is remarkably similar to that of Sun Wukong from the novel. In fact, he also looks a bit like Goku from Dragon Ball, an anime that famously draws inspiration from Journey to the West. Hell, the kid’s last name is an homage to a character from the book, but let’s stop fawning over details. Needless to say, The Forbidden Kingdom’s heart is in the right place, but you’ll quickly see why it doesn’t quite hit the mark.
Jason is inept as hell and nearly dies at the hands of some bandits before the ancient hero Lu Yan (Chan) walks up and puts them in their place. A drunken scholar that is a master of martial arts, it’s very clear this character is an homage to Chan’s take on Wong Fei Hung in Drunken Master. That was the film that put Chan on the map, so it makes sense. Yan explains to Jason the history behind the staff and how it is now his destiny to return it to The Monkey King to free the kingdom from the tyranny of the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou).
Sitting in a tavern drinking, Jason and Yan are interrupted by the Warlord’s men and get into an old-fashioned Kung Fu brawl. Jason does fucking nothing while Yan flips and dips in a manner similar to 70s classics. Despite getting up there in age at this point, Chan still delivers some impressive stuff and the sequence is absolutely entertaining. I especially like the part where Jason attempts to help but ends up hitting Chan, causing the man to give his trademark wide-eyed reactions. It’s certainly familiar stuff but shot well enough.
Just when things are getting hairy, a young woman by the name of Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei) comes in and starts offing dudes. Inspired by the heroine from Come Drink With Me, Golden Sparrow helps the two escape and regales them with the story of her past. The Jade Warlord killed her family years ago and she has spent her life training in the hopes of revenge.
Yifei’s performance is actually the one thing that I remembered well from years prior. I was taken by her beauty, but also loved her prowess in combat. It’s certainly thanks to some wirework and CGI that she possesses those skills, but her performance here would propel her to stardom in China before she eventually returned to Hollywood to star in Disney’s live-action remake of Mulan. She’s now somewhat controversial for standing with the Hong Kong police force during the 2019 riots, but let’s stay on track.
After spending the night recovering from their prior encounter, Jason wakes up the following morning alone. Looking around for Yan and Sparrow, a random traveler rides by on horseback and steals the staff from him. Just as that happens, Yan catches up to Jason and they follow the man. Taking refuge in a temple, Yan enters under the guise of friendly conversation before the traveler removes his mask and the two fight. This is the big centerpiece of the film where Chan and Li throwdown and it’s certainly worth the price of admission.
While not the best fight the two have ever put to the silver screen, it pays homage to each actor’s past while doing its best to not show either one as superior. Much like how Chan is playing an amalgamation of his breakout role, Li is also playing a monk that is reminiscent of his breakout role in Shaolin Temple and Martial Arts of Shaolin. There are elements of comedy here, too, with Li adopting a mantis stance and Chan saying, “Ah, mantis. Very good…for catching bugs! But not tigers!” and then switching to a tiger stance. It’s fun, even if in the back of your mind, you can’t help but feel the duel would have been better 10 years earlier.
Either way, after this brawl, the monk joins Yan, Jason, and Sparrow, and the team is set for tackling the Jade Warlord. He hasn’t been sitting still this whole time, however. After learning that the staff is in the hands of a mere boy, the Warlord strikes a deal with the witch Ni-Chang (Li Bingbing) to steal it back. He promises her immortality if she can vanquish Jason, so now her mind is set on destruction.
With two legendary teachers at his disposal, Jason demands that he begin learning Kung Fu so that he might be of actual use to the plot. There’s some bickering amongst the masters and Jason gets his ass whooped, but eventually, they relent and imbue their knowledge to him. Cue some rather vague montages where Jason becomes a badass almost immediately. The entire middle of The Forbidden Kingdom feels like filler, but it does so in service of being an homage to classic martial arts cinema.
After some brutal training, Jason finds Sparrow relaxing in a field and the two begin talking about their pasts. Just as the conversation gets good, Ni-Chang appears and an all-out brawl occurs. For whatever reason, the movie focuses on Jason in lieu of Chan or Li, so we get some sloppy cuts and incredibly exaggerated wire-fu in an attempt to make Jason look competent. The team eventually escapes, but Ni-Chang fires off an arrow that miraculously strikes Yan in the back.
Earlier in the film, Yan had claimed he was an immortal being to mask the fact that he’s just a drunkard. Saying wine was his elixir, it turns out this was a bunch of nonsense and Yan is slowly fading away. With his hand forced, Jason takes the staff and heads to battle the Jade Warlord himself. Despite his best efforts to stop him, the monk learns too late of Jason’s plan. He quickly grabs Sparrow and the two head off to prevent Jason from dying.
In comes the final duel of the film where, once again, Jason takes center stage. The Jade Warlord tells Jason some lies about letting him live in exchange for the staff, but then he pits Jason against Ni-Chang in a battle to the death. If you can believe it, Jason gets his ass handed to him and all hope seems lost. Just then, the monk and Sparrow come in and things get interesting.
All of this happens within the last 40-ish minutes of the film, so I can’t claim the pacing is off. It’s just strange that a lot of the plot is mostly filler that could have been cut. I’m also still not quite sure what Jason brings to the table. I understand he is supposed to be a composite for someone like me, that is, a white kid that grew up in love with martial arts movies. I would never presume to be competent, though, nor would I disobey my teachers.
Also, can we talk about how Jason has no clue who Jackie Chan and Jet Li are? I don’t mean their characters, but the actors themselves. For someone that makes references to Bruce Lee during his training and name drops a bunch of Shaw Brothers films, how in the hell does he not recognize the faces of these men? I find it impossible that Jason would wake up in a Kung Fu dream surrounded by two of the greatest actors of martial arts cinema, then proceed to never say something like, “Oh my god! You’re Jackie Chan!” Does Chan not exist in this alternate universe?
Mini-rant aside, the monk and Sparrow help Jason defeat most of the Jade Warlord’s crew before an entire monk colony comes in with Yan on a stretcher. With some careful acrobatics, they retrieve the immortality elixir and hand it to Yan, who then beats the shit out of Ni-Chang. As for the monk, he is basically defeated but distracts the Jade Warlord long enough for Jason to hand the staff over to The Monkey King. This not only frees him from his slumber but reveals that the monk was a mere illusion that The Monkey King created centuries ago. Now free from the Jade Warlord’s trickery, he soundly defeats the man and restores freedom to the kingdom.
It’s kind of a cop-out ending, but we still have the bullshit with Jason to wrap up. Once back in South Boston, Jason wakes up and gets his ass kicked again. When it seems like the bullies are going to get the better of him, he snaps to his senses and lays the smackdown on them. They then all run away and we cut to the pawnshop owner getting carted into an ambulance. Contain your shock here, but it turns out that the owner might actually be Yan from centuries prior. Wow… Jason also runs into a girl that looks a surprising amount like Golden Sparrow and she even runs her own shop named “Golden Sparrow.” Just…kill me.
In all honesty, The Forbidden Kingdom isn’t that bad of a film. If we could have just cut all the modern-day crap and focused on Chan and Li, it would have come together in a much better fashion. Adapting parts of Journey to the West into a tribute to Chinese folklore is a smart idea. I also really love the references to classic films that are thrown about without being tacky…except for the ridiculous line Golden Sparrow gets at the end where she tells the Jade Warlord, “Come drink with me.” Yeah, we get it. You’re certainly no Cheng Pei-Pei, even if she would star with you in Mulan 12 years later…what the hell world do we live in?
If you can tune out most of the plot, the fight scenes are quite appealing. They stop being creative past the mid-point, but Woo-Ping gives us another extravagant display of wuxia talent that does his legacy proud. It’s also a fun nod to both Chan and Li’s past as they previously starred in films directed by the man. Again, I have to stress that the filmmakers had their hearts in the right place. It’s pretty clear that studio meddling is what gave us a story focused on some punk kid rather than actual martial artists.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s hard not to imagine what could have been if both actors were still in their prime. Jackie Chan was on fire in the late 80s and early 90s and Jet Li was fresh out of being crowned a Wushu champion. It doesn’t seem like the duo had any animosity toward one another, more the timing was never right until the mid-00s. We can’t judge the movie against what could have been, however, so we’ll have to take what we can get.
If you’d like to read more of Peter’s Kung Fu Corner, you can do so by clicking here.