I like peanut butter, I like chocolate, but I really like peanut butter and chocolate. So, when word reached my ears about a film that finally paired martial arts greats Jackie Chan and Jet Li, I was drooling with anticipation. “The Forbidden Kingdom” is a children’s movie, or ‘family film’ as they are called now, and does not exactly deliver the hardcore action fans of Chan and Li might want. However, it does manage to weave an enchanting tale of high adventure and mystical martial arts action in mythic China.
“The Forbidden Kingdom” borrows heavily from old Kung Fu films and Chinese mythology, and it really owns the material. This film is not afraid to connect the dots between its sources in a way that might be untrue to the original. While that serves as a strength in some cases, it also can be frustrating to a hardcore genre fan. Director Rob Minkoff very obviously made this a film for general audiences rather than catering to the fetishists out there.
Michael Angarano plays exactly the sort of person who would be frustrated with this movie, an extremely sincere fan of the Kung Fu movie. He is a shy young man, picked on by his peers, and frustrated with his life. Then he is whisked away to a mystical representation of ancient China, the illegitimate child of wuxia and mythology. There he meets Lu Yan, a drunken immortal played very well by Jackie Chan, and discovers that his destiny is to return a magical staff to the imprisoned Monkey King.
The Monkey King (Jet Li) is a cross between a mythic folk hero and a god, and was turned to stone by the evil Jade Warlord, another immortal. Angarano has to get the staff back to the Monkey King so he can defeat the Warlord and free China from tyranny. Along the way he meets Sparrow, a beautiful young woman who wants revenge for her slain parents, and Lan Cai He (also Jet Li) a stoic monk on a quest to find the staff. Together they fight a white-haired assassin, legions of enemies, and each other.
The real treat in this film is the fight between Jackie Chan and Jet Li. A word of warning, however, it is very much a wuxia fight complete with wires and inhuman acrobatics. Someone seeking a realistic fight between them should look elsewhere. That being said, this fight is something to behold, and easily the high point of the entire movie.
In the end, this film is limited by the frame story. Angarano tries to be a good lead, but he is overshadowed by Chan and Li. Maybe if the script had allowed him to be a little more heroic or endearing he would have worked. Instead he comes across as slightly buffoonish, and fails to win the audience, so in the end we only mildly care what happens to him. With a stronger lead, or by removing the frame completely, this could have gone from being decent to excellent.
‘The Ruins’ opened in theaters on friday. It is an adaptation of the novel by the same name, by writer Scott B. Smith. He is the same author who wrote the novel and screen adaptation of “A Simple Plan”. With that feather in his cap, it is easy to expect good things from ‘The Ruins’, he also wrote the screenplay for this film as well. Unfortunately for movie goers, this latest work fails to achieve the quality of his prior work.
The movie begins with four pretty midwestern college students on holiday down in Mexico. While there are mild distinctions in their personalities, they are nearly interchangeable for the most part. There is the blonde girl, and the whiny girl; there is the future doctor, and the generic boyfriend guy. Generic is a good description, aside from some specific situations involving the doctor wannabe, their personalities are almost completely irrelevant to the story.
During their time at the pool, they meet the Mathias, a German tourist who is also on holiday. Unlike the other four, he had the potential to be slightly interesting, but is blatantly used to advance the plot and for nothing more. His brother is dating an archaeologist, and so he invites the four to come with him to see a Mayan temple that is not in any of the guidebooks. The doctor one wants to go, the others are unsure, but they agree to go anyway.
On the next day, they make their way to a remote village, and then take a cab nearly twenty miles to reach a river near the temple. Naturally they ignore all the ‘horror movie signs’ that any sane person would heed. A reluctant cab driver, creepy native children staring at them as they hike, and finally a tense confrontation with a non-english speaking native. Thanks to an especially dumb move by the whiny one, they end up being herded onto the temple and surrounded by armed people who refuse to let them leave.
What was extremely frustrating about this film, aside from the annoying characters, was the fact that the ‘monster’ could have been very interesting in the right circumstances. It is an intelligent plant that incubates in people, and grows out of their body. The problem is that due to the extreme boredom from watching the characters interact, there was no interest left for the plant revelation. By the time all was revealed I just did not care.
Then the problem snowballed, when self and group mutilation entered into the equation and everything ended up being frivolously gory. Numerous stupid decisions later, we end up with an ending that is only satisfying because it means there is no more movie to watch. Plagued with uninteresting characters, needless gore, and an unexplained foe, this film is one to avoid. Save your money and time for something worthwhile.