There was this movie when I was a kid that came on cable all the time. The movie had a hero that was this ordinary guy until one day he got thrown into this magical world with Kung Fu masters and Chinese wizards. Combatants could fly through the air and there were immortals and prophecies and beautiful heroines. I’d never really seen anything like it before, but I knew that I loved it. I didn’t always catch the entire movie, but over time I know I saw all of it in pieces, and even got to where I’d nearly memorized the entire film in my head. That movie was Big Trouble in Little China.
While John Carpenter’s Cult Classic isn’t the best Martial Arts movie ever made, it introduced me to them in a way that was totally accessible to my 10 year old mind, and was still a loving embrace to the insane creativity and entertainment value of Hong Kong cinema. When I got older and finally discovered Hong Kong cinema for myself, I think part of the reason that I took to it so fully was because of my first association with that type of movie with Jack Burton’s crazy adventure. Even though Carpenter’s film was apparently a huge flop when it first premiered, I wonder how many kids had the same experience that I did because of it.
Friday night, as I sat in my local theater watching The Forbidden Kingdom, it made me think about how many eight year old kids were sitting there having their own Big Trouble in Little China-like experience. Again, here was another love letter to the Hong Kong cinema that I cherish, but presented in a way that a child could completely get wrapped up in, and better yet; the movie features some of the biggest icons that the genre has ever produced.
Now admittedly, when I first heard that this movie was going to go down, I was fairly sure it was going to be terrible. Sure, I was certainly excited about the prospect of seeing Jackie Chan and Jet Li onscreen, but at the same time I knew these weren’t going to be the Jackie Chan and Jet Li of 15 years ago. Also it was announced that the director of the movie wasn’t going to be a Hong Kong veteran or Action movie specialist, but the director of Haunted Mansion and Stuart Little 2. This was the guy who was going to bring together the two most important screen Martial Artists of the last thirty years? Something seemed highly wrong here.
I mean, when I got into college, Hong Kong cinema was a gigantic obsession for me. John Woo’s Hard Boiled is still one of the essential movies of my cinema lexicon, and its out of print Criterion DVD is one of the prized possessions of my collection. I couldn’t get enough of movies such as old school Chop Socky flicks like The Five Deadly Venoms and Five Element Ninja. I was occasionally disappointed when my first generation DVD player could play bootlegs of movies like Shaolin Temple and Full Contact. They knew my name at Blockbuster because I’d always be in to rent from their Martial Arts section which featured a bunch of titles like Southern Monkey Kung Fu and Blood of the Dragon.
Outside of Chow Yun Fat, easily my favorite Action stars were Jet Li and Jackie Chan. Like many of my generation, my introduction to Jet Li was in Lethal Weapon 4, which is absolutely the worst movie in that series, but also went out of its way to show you just how bad ass Li could be onscreen. It was enough to spark my interest in the actor and when Black Mask came to theaters, I checked it out and was pretty entertained, though it’s really a pretty terrible movie. Then came Fist of Legend, and my eyes were opened to just how awesome a Martial Arts film could really be.
Only available in a terrible dubbed version in America, Fist of Legend is still pound for pound the best Martial Arts movie I’ve ever seen. Jet Li’s remake of Bruce Lee’s breakout Fist of Fury (AKA: The Chinese Connection) doesn’t rely on a lot of the wirework and flying that Li would do in some of his biggest hits lit Once Upon a Time in China or The Tai Chi Master. What we get instead is Li in hard core, bone crunching fight scenes that still stagger the mind with their awesomeness. From then on, I finally had a yardstick by which to judge the rest of the genre.
My introduction to Jackie Chan had come years earlier. Without knowing it, I’d seen Jackie in the Cannonball Run movies, and The Big Brawl had been on TBS every now and then, but during my sophomore year in High School Rumble in the Bronx hit theaters. Then Supercop came out, and First Strike, and Operation Condor. I couldn’t get enough of Chan, and then as high school went on, I forgot about him. Oh sure, I’d still catch his movies on TV, but when I got into college, that’s when my Hong Kong obsession kicked into high gear.
Again, I was shocked by how awesome Jackie was in his prime. Wheels on Meals, Police Story, Armor of God, and Project A all showed what Hollywood had been missing in the 80’s and 90’s. This guy was an Action god who did all his own stunts and the best we could do for him was put him in Burt Reynolds movies. Then again, if Jackie had only been making American films then we would have never gotten Drunken Master II. I know I’ve already devoted an entire column to the movie (AKA: Legend of the Drunken Master) and the movie remains one of the three best Hong Kong movies of all time. Seeing Chan crabwalk through fire in a movie he starred in, co-directed, choreographed, did all his own stunt work, and sang on the soundtrack shames most action stars of the same generation. Jackie Chan was the real deal and gave up his body for his art.
Then in the late 90’s both of these stars came to America and should have been able to take Hollywood by storm. Instead, Chan has managed to have some success in buddy movies, but has also had to languish in formulaic fare like The Tuxedo and The Medallion. The physical toll has finally caught up with the one man stunt team and now CGI and stunt doubles have become a regular occurrence for Chan. Li fared better to some degree. Managing to go back to China and film a masterpiece (Hero), as well as starring in Luc Besson produced powerhouse Action films like Unleashed and Kiss of the Dragon. Unfortunately, he’s also had to suffer through more Hollywood schlock like Cradle 2 the Grave, and horrible flicks like The One. Fist of Legend may have had a miniscule budget next to these movies, but none of them could match it for cinematic punch.
The Forbidden Kingdom Starring Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Yifei Liu, and Collin Chou. Directed by Rob Minkoff.
So this brings me back to Friday night and the anticipation for The Forbidden Kingdom. With a lot going against it, I wasn’t sure what to expect, but fortunately, I had the best time I’ve had in a theater for a long while. Now does the movie bring Jackie and Jet back to their bone breaking/awe inspiring glory of past decade? No it really doesn’t, but it allows them to show their stuff, and lets them play around in a way that I haven’t seen them do in probably close to a decade, and damn it, Jet Li and Jackie Chan have a fight scene. That alone brought a ridiculous grin to my face.
As for the movie itself, it takes the basic Fantasy formula of the ordinary kid who’s actually the savior of the universe, only this time instead of learning about the Force or the Matrix or a story that’s never-ending, Michael Angarano’s Jason Tripitikas gets to learn about Kung Fu. Now that’s a fantasy I can get behind. The opening credit sequence of the movie shows a lot of close-ups of old Shaw Brothers posters, and there’s a room in my house that looks really similar, with Chow Yun Fat and Michelle Yeoh getting precedence over Gordon Liu and “the Deadly Venoms”. It’s easy to see myself in those shoes and that’s what makes this movie work in my eyes.
Now, I know just off the top that a lot of Hong Kong and Martial Arts fans are probably going to write off the movie because of its intentions of being more of a child friendly movie, with a Caucasian in the lead, and that most of the cast speaks English even though the movie mostly takes place in a Fantasy China. I’ve got to say that none of those things ended up bothering me. First off, I really like Michael Angarano. I think he’s really funny in Sky High and I think he does admirable work here, bringing the laughs when he needs to and treading enough water when the script lets him down a bit.
The biggest surprise of the movie though, just might be the script by John Fusco, who’s obviously a fan of Hong Kong cinema. The movie pays a lot of homage to the greats of the past, from Shaw Brothers classics like Come Drink with Me to a mention of Wong Fei Hung’s Shadowless Kick in Once Upon a Time in China. In a lot of ways this script does a lot of the same things as Tarantino’s script in Kill Bill, but in a little more general way. What I liked though is that the references were subtle enough that Kung Fu fans would get them without drawing too much attention to them. This was especially surprising in a movie that was geared much more towards a younger sect who wouldn’t get them at all.
As much as I really liked all of those elements, the real reasons to watch the movie are named Li and Chan. Sure, they can’t move like they used to and there’s more wirework and special effects wizardry, but there’s a screen charisma these two have that they’ve never lost. When Jason gets thrown into Ancient China, its Jackie’s Lu Yan that helps to get us acquainted with the surroundings. Seeing Chan here reminds me of his days of true greatness, as his character is an immortal that uses wine as his elixir of life. Hence, Lu Yan fights with the drunken fist and the first time you see it, with Jackie carrying around gourds of wine on his person, and drinking out of them as he kicks the crap out of some imperial heavies is hysterical and exhilarating.
Jet Li may even get to have more fun here, getting to play two roles in the movie; a mischievous Monkey King and the stoic Silent Monk. For his scenes as the Monk, this is classic Bad Ass Li. The Action star is used wisely here, letting Jackie do most of the heavy lifting with the dialogue, while Jet gets to let his physicality do the talking for him. As the Monkey King, we get to see a Jet Li that is rarely on screen. This is a playful Li, smiling wide while his staff cuts down opponents. It’s amazing to see this side of the actor, especially after role after role of him being a complete bad ass (not that there’s anything wrong with that).
Point is, even with their diminished physical abilities compared to just a decade ago, each are used in ways that completely take advantage of their screen charisma and talents. Then in a hall of fame geek moment, we even get to see them fight, with full on choreography by Yuen Woo Ping to boot, the man who directed the first Drunken Master and put together Fist of Legend’s unbelievable fights. While no one is probably going to say this is the crowning Kung Fu achievement from either of these performers, the mere collaboration elicits nothing but sheer joy.
No one is ever going to say that The Forbidden Kingdom is the best film from either of these two Action gods, but nonetheless, this is a momentous occasion. We may never get to see Sly and Arnie onscreen or Bruce Willis and Clint Eastwood or Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal beat down on Jean Claude Van Damme, but we’ve finally gotten to see Jet Li and Jackie Chan in a movie together. Not only that, they did it in a film that may just open up the world of Hong Kong cinema to a whole new generation of viewers, and that is a wonderful gift indeed.