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Dustin Putman

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The Forbidden Kingdom  (2008)
Directed by Rob Minkoff
Cast: Michael Angarano, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Yifei Liu, Li Bing Bing, Collin Chou, Morgan Benoit, Deshun Wang, Xiao Keng Ye.
2008 – 113 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for martial arts action and violence).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 16, 2008.
Sitting through "The Forbidden Kingdom" is akin to standing in front of a brick wall for 113 minutes. If the purpose of cinema is to emotionally move the audience in some way, whether it be frightening them in a horror movie, making them laugh in a comedy, making them shed a tear in a drama, or thrilling them in an action flick, this pitifully artificial and amateurish martial arts adventure flunks out. Directed by Rob Minkoff (2002's "Stuart Little 2") as if he's never stepped behind a camera before in his life, "The Forbidden Kingdom" is a drab exercise in poor storytelling, empty-headed characters, low-grade aesthetics, and forgettable action sequences. Paying close attention was fruitless; the film had so little impact on me that the details of the narrative began to exit my memory even before the end credits had rolled.

Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) is a—wait for it—fatherless teen living in Boston whose love for kung-fu cinema proves to be no help in fending off a gang of unruly bullies. When they use him to break into a Chinatown pawnshop and end up shooting the kindly old owner, Jason narrowly escapes by waking up in ancient China. With a legendary staff in hand with the powers to free imprisoned warrior The Monkey King from the clutches of the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), Jason sets off with drunken scholar Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), The Silent Monk (Jet Li) and beautiful, young vengeance-seeker Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu) on a dangerous journey to return the staff to its rightful owner.

Opening up with one of the most laughably unconvincing screen portrayals of Boston maybe ever, "The Forbidden Kingdom" then segues into shameful "The Wizard of Oz" territory as Jason befriends a trio of offbeat characters, voyages to an Emerald City-like palace, does battle with a witch (Li Bing Bing) and ultimately requests at the end that all he wants to do is go home. Referencing so heavily a classic like "The Wizard of Oz" forces the viewer to make comparisons, and the cold, dull and decidedly unmagical "The Forbidden Kingdom" embarrasses itself all the more because of this.

Taken as its own original entity, the film is no better off. The exotic Chinese locations are pilfered by lousy CGI effects and green screen work, and the material shot on soundstages has about the same effect as if it were acted out on an off-Broadway stage. The flat and uninteresting characters have the chemistry of strangers who can't be bothered. The plot, as silly as it is, is an overwhelming bore, with a languid pace to match. The martial arts set-pieces have none of the charm or dazzle of the dubbed '70s kung-fu movies it's attempting to emulate. Stunt work calls attention to itself whenever the actors' faces are strategically veiled from the camera. And the moral of the story—that learning to beat up people who are mean to you is the honorable thing to do—is misguided in the extreme.

Performances are uniformly terrible. Michael Angarano, award-worthy in the recent indie drama "Snow Angels," looks lost as hero Jason, and it has nothing to do with him being in a foreign land. Angarano struggles to fit in with his castmates, but as the only one whose first language is English he might as well be acting alone. Jackie Chan (2007's "Rush Hour 3") is barren of charisma, drinking his way through the film. Jet Li (2007's "War") is so wooden that he's in danger of getting splinters. Newcomer Yifei Liu is cute as Golden Sparrow, but that's all she is. It is obvious she hasn't a clue what she is saying in English, and this puts a damper on the sort-of love story she shares with Jason.

There are a few instances of unintentional comedy in "The Forbidden Kingdom"—Jet Li is patently ridiculous in his dual role as the overhyper Monkey King, and some of the effects shots are jarring in their chintziness—but they are too few and far between for any fun to come from them. This isn't "so-bad-it's-good" we're talking about; it's "so-bad-it's-bad." Those brave souls who endure the film and walk away from it without going into a brain-numbing state of catatonia should be rewarded a certificate.
© 2008 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman