US/China. 2008. 113mins
Anticipated both for its Jackie Chan-Jet Li star pairing and its East-meets-West production approach, The Forbidden Kingdom attempts to put top-flight Asian martial arts together with family friendly fantasy in an English-language action adventure package. The elements of this well crafted and good-looking US/China co-production should attract sizeable and demographically broad audiences around the world. But the formulaic story and slightly calculated feel will make it hard for the independently distributed genre mashup to reach the box office heights achieved by some of the Hollywood majors' recent fantasy adventure offerings.
After its Beijing premiere this week, the Casey Silver/Huayi Brothers production (backed by Relativity Media) gets a wide, PG-13 release in the US on April 18 through Lionsgate and the Weinstein Co. That will give it a two week jump on the first of the similarly teen- and family-targeted summer blockbusters and should, at the very least, set up a lucrative video run later in the year.
The star pairing and genre mix will be especially attractive in the international marketplace, giving the film - distributed by Lionsgate or Weinstein in a handful of major territories and by local indies elsewhere - a fighting chance of competing with bigger studio releases over the crowded summer season.
The Asian thread of the script by John Fusco (Young Guns, Hidalgo) is based on the traditional Chinese legend of the Monkey King, but the story is told from the point of view of modern day American teen Jason (Angarano from Man In The Chair and Snow Angels).
Recalling elements of The Karate Kid, Lord Of The Rings and plenty of other quest adventures, the predictable plot has martial arts fan Jason magically transported back to ancient China and charged with freeing the Monkey King from the clutches of the Jade Warlord (Chou, from Flashpoint). Jason's companions are Chan's tipsy kung fu master Lu Yan, Li's straight-faced Silent Monk and pretty Golden Sparrow (Chinese pop and screen star Liu Yifei). Acting for the Warlord is the White Haired Demoness (Li Bing Bing, from The Knot).
American director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) steers the narrative with a steady if uninspired hand - one training montage may be obligatory in this sort of outing but a second seems a bit desperate - while Hong Kong martial arts master Woo-Ping Yuen (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) choreographs the action sequences.
The four or five big fight scenes have some nice settings and feature the kind of aerial ballet and precision footwork for which Woo-Ping is renowned. They're enhanced by special effects (mostly done in Korea) that are well up to par for a production with a reported budget of between $50m and $70m.
The fight scenes don't quite rise to the imaginative level of Woo-Ping's best work, though, and the significance and subtleties of the film's one head-to-head encounter between martial arts legends Chan and Li - for whom this is a first on-screen meeting - will probably be lost on general audiences.
Eye catching Chinese locations beautifully shot by Hong Kong cinematographer Peter Pau (another Crouching Tiger contributor) are another plus, but beyond its visual appeal the film is lacking in real substance. What character development there is follows strict genre guidelines and the comic potential in the difference between Chan's and Li's characters is rarely exploited.
As well as fighting technique, the two Asian superstars bring a lot of charisma to the proceedings, though they're hardly stretched dramatically. Angarano is very likeable as the misfit Jason and though his career so far has cast him more as an actor than a heartthrob his presence should help attract (female and male) teen moviegoers.
With its mix of Chinese and American talent, money and expertise, The Forbidden Kingdom is being billed as representing a middle way between two schools of film-making. As such, it will certainly help improve relations between two vital national industries. As a movie, however, it ends up feeling a little too much like a compromise.
Casey Silver Productions (US)
Relativity Media (US)
Huayi Brothers (China)
Lionsgate/The Weinstein Co
The Weinstein Co/Lionsgate/Relativity
(1) 310 859 1250
Raffaella De Laurentiis
Director of photography
Li Bing Bing