Saturday, April 12, 2008

Thoughts on the film: The Forbidden Kingdom

When he saw how sad I was at missing out on the screening of The Forbidden Kingdom last week, the awesome Christopher Stack invited me to join him at the cast and crew screening of the film last night. Jackie Chan showed up before the film and smiled and waved and looked adorable, then went home.

The security guards were a little mad with power. They searched purses and wanded people and when the phone rang as I was walking into the theater 15 minutes before the movie was even supposed to start one of them made me stand outside the theater to talk. If I'd gone into the theater before answering the phone he would never have known, so that seemed a little silly.

The neatest thing about sitting in on a cast and crew screening is the random cheering that takes place at moments during the film. Of course there was clapping and cheering all through the credits as the major players showed up on screen. But all through the movie an extra would squeal when she saw herself, and at the end the entire audience stayed for the length of the credits to watch their names roll by. I was trying to be respectful by also staying but I really had to pee. I stayed, although it displeased my bladder a great deal.

Anyway, the movie.

A solid C+.

The fight scenes were awesome. This was definitely reminiscent of a traditional Chines martial arts film complete with crazy moves and of course the expected fight between Jet Li and Jackie Chan which was appropriately badass. And that white boy is one quick bastard in a stick fight. He has a strong background in dance which makes sense. He looked like a martial arts master by the end of the film, but like so many Chinese martial arts stars, did it by learning a routine. It fooled me. I was convinced he was a real fighter.

The film had a lot of Mortal Kombat / Jade Empire feel to it. And I mean that in a good way.

The comedy was perfect. I laughed regularly during this film, mostly because of Jackie Chan's terrific facial expressions. I think this is probably the best work I've ever seen him do. He looked like he was having a lot of fun. And Jet Li did some cool stuff too but man does he look old all the sudden. It's like the last thirty years of his life suddenly caught up with him all at once. Still, he pulled off a surprising lot of comedy here.

Unfortunately the story didn't match up to these cool elements. The story itself wasn't a bad one - a white American boy (Michael Angarano)
obsessed with kung fu movies but having no actual skill comes into possession of a magic fighting stick he must return to the frozen Monkey King in fairy tale China to stop an evil Jade Warlord from his tyrannical rule over the kingdom.

The problem was the way the story unfolded. Exposition for ten minutes. Then a fight. Then some conflict. Then a fight. Then a training montage, then some more exposition, then a fight, etc. It was one thing at a time for the whole film so it never felt pushed to the ending.


One of the major problems was the character of Sparrow. I can almost say with certainty that the script was written and ready when some studio exec said, hey! He needs a love interest! So they tossed her in. In every single scene she was extraneous. It seems to me like they didn't even change the story at all, just threw in a few extra scenes.

For example, during the training montage there's this random scene where she practices throwing darts by herself in the woods. The white boy, Jason, learning martial arts from two great masters, why can't she show him how to throw darts? Then, not only would this scene not feel out of place in the middle of the training montage, but it gives the young lovers a minute together actually doing something other than just talking, as well as setting up something for the future of the story. When she becomes incapacitated in the final fight he could use the skills he learned from her to continue the fight. But none of that happened. It was just a random scene that had very little effect on the story.

Here's the other thing about that. Sparrow fights with this evil witch lady at the end. Why? Because they're both girls. Apparently they hate each other, although we've never been given a reason why. Then Sparrow gets distracted or something and a male character takes over the fight. Why? I'll bet you a bazillion dollars it's because that's how the fight went before the studio executive told the writers to put in a love interest. So they tossed an extra girl fight scene, then spliced it with the original scene they had before she was a part of the script.

They should have left her in the fight. The male character who takes over for her is an immortal. The evil chick he's fighting isn't. So when he's hanging over a precipice and might fall in you're not really worried about him. He can't die. Sparrow is not immortal. The scene would have been a whole lot stronger if Sparrow had continued the girl fight to the end where there would have been some real peril for her character. That would also have been really effective if Sparrow and the evil lady had some kind of history together.

The thing that frustrated me is a lot of these story problems were really easy fixes. With all due respect to John Fusco, who wrote Young Guns so he will always be a hero to me, this story was kind of written half ass. Maybe it was the studio, maybe it was the director, but this movie had the potential to be really incredible and it falls flat.

But if you want to see some badass fights and some terrific comedy, this film is excellent for that. Just don't expect to be moved by the story points.

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