Martial-arts fans have been waiting for years to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li co-star in the same movie, and when these two living legends finally meet for the first time in The Forbidden Kingom, you can sense that the filmmakers wanted to make the most of this historic moment.
Chan plays Lu Yan, a slightly comic figure who is always drinking wine and does a lot of his fighting "drunken" style, while Li plays a mysterious figure known only as the Silent Monk—and their first encounter, in an abandoned temple, leads to a seemingly non-stop series of kicks and blows, choreographed by The Matrix's Yuen Woo-ping, that looks incredible but eventually begins to seem a little long.
You know how musical numbers are sometimes called "showstoppers"? That's pretty much what this fight scene does: it puts the story on pause, and as it goes on, you begin to realize that neither of these men is going to win the fight. Both of them have devoted fan bases, after all, and while both sets of fans will no doubt be thrilled to see their heroes in action, you can't really let either group down by declaring, in effect, that one man is more powerful than the other. It's like those old comic books where Superman engages The Flash in a foot race, and it ends in a tie.
Why are the two men fighting? Because the Silent Monk stole a magical staff from a friend of Lu Yan's. And the fight comes to an end when this friend finally shows up and reclaims the staff. But here's the part that martial-arts fans probably didn't expect all those years: The friend in question is an American teenager, and the first film to co-star Jackie Chan and Jet Li casts them both as supporting characters in this teenager's story. What's more, the film, directed by former Disney animator Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little), almost feels like it was made for kids.
I say "almost" because it does feature enough violence and off-color bits to qualify for a PG-13 rating, beginning with a sequence set in the present-day U.S. in which the teen in question, Jason Tripitikas (Sky High's Michael Angarano), is accosted by bullies who use his friendship with a Chinese merchant to break into the merchant's store, and then shoot the merchant when he tries to defend himself. Jason, holding on to a staff that he found in the merchant's shop, tries to flee the bullies, but instead falls off the roof, after which … well, maybe he goes back in time, or maybe he sort of dreams it, Wizard of Oz style. Or, given the movie posters that adorn Jason's bedroom wall, perhaps he is transported into a kung-fu movie itself.
At any rate, Jason finds himself in a corner of China that is currently being oppressed by the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), a supernatural military figure who, many years before, tricked a godlike entity known as the Monkey King into setting aside his magical staff, and thus turned him to stone. It seems that the staff in Jason's hands is the staff that once belonged to the Monkey King, and so it is up to Jason—along with his newfound friends, Lu Yan and the orphaned, revenge-seeking woman Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu)—to liberate the Monkey King by bringing him the staff and setting him free so that he can fight the Jade Warlord one more time.
Along the way, Jason meets the Silent Monk, and once they realize that they all have the same basic goal—to get the staff back to its rightful owner—they decide to team up, with Lu Yan and the Monk taking turns training Jason for the fights to come. In addition to the usual physical challenges, this means dispensing the odd bit of wisdom, such as when Lu Yan tells Jason he must abandon his preconceptions if he is ever to truly learn: "How can you fill your cup when it is already full?"
The film touches on other noteworthy themes, albeit briefly, such as the dangers of hate, the nature of immortality, and whether a life without attachments—the Buddhist ideal—is worth living. As Lu Yan puts it, a person who eschews personal attachments will never suffer a broken heart, "but then, does he really live?"
All of this is packaged fairly entertainingly. There is humor throughout the film, from the mocking laughter of the Monkey King himself to Lu Yan's occasional quips, and the action sequences are a marvel to behold, expertly combining physical stunts with computerized effects. The opening credits, which play over a series of images from old kung-fu posters, also feature a jazzy retro score by David Buckley that sets just the right tone for a film that has, in a sense, been years in the making.
The sad thing is, at some point you know that the traditional Chinese story in the traditional Chinese setting will have to fade away, so that the movie can get back to that grim back alley where Jason last saw the bullies, and where Jason will no doubt turn out to be far more empowered than he was when he left. (Think of how the kids dodge, and then fight, the bullies in C. S. Lewis's The Silver Chair.) For a North American audience, this may bring the story back to familiar territory, but for fans of Chan and Li, the movie will already be over, even though the credits aren't running yet.Discussion starters
- Lu Yan tells Jason, "How can you fill your cup when it is already full?" How have you needed to "empty your cup" in order to learn what someone—God, your pastor, a family member—was teaching you? How do you know when to "empty" the cup and when to leave it "full"?
- Lu Yan asks whether a person with no personal attachments ever really lives. What is a Christian approach to personal attachments? How are we "attached" to each other by our faith, our common humanity, or our attachment to God? Is there ever a time when attachments are bad? If so, when?
- Jason tells Lu Yan, "I'll never forget you," to which Lu Yan replies, "I guess that's what being immortal truly means." How is memory linked to immortality? (Think of how the thief asked Jesus to "remember" him in his Kingdom.) How is living on in the memories of others an inadequate form of immortality?
- When one of the villains learns about Jason, she says, "Isn't that like the Monkey King, sending a boy to do a man's job?" What other examples can you think of, of proud people who were brought low by the humble or small in stature?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
The Forbidden Kingdom is rated PG-13 for sequences of martial arts action and some violence, mostly of a bloodless sort. A few bad words are also spoken; an old man teases an adolescent kung-fu fan with a reference to masturbation ("crouching tiger, spanking monkey") that may fly over the younger audience members' heads; and in one scene a man urinates on another while he prays for rain. One of the heroes also drinks a lot of wine and does his fighting "drunken" style. Because the bulk of the film is set in Asia, it also assumes a sort of Buddhist religious worldview, though the religious bits are far less significant than the Chinese mythic elements
Photos © Copyright Lionsgate
Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.