Chan Kam Chuen
QUIET, PLEASE: Jet Li plays the Silent Monk in 'The Forbidden Kingdom.'
The Hong Kong martial arts movie expires in the hands of a young Western boy
By Richard von Busack
IT STARTS in the clouds. Jet Li, in simian makeup, plays the legendary Monkey King. This figure, in Chinese lore a combination of Prometheus and Bugs Bunny, stands on a pinnacle of rock. He is bouncing, giggling, using a quarterstaff to fight off the armor-clad soldiers of the Jade Warlord. So far so good, and then we cut to the bedroom of a kid from the bad part of Boston. Jason (Michael Angarano) has been dreaming the whole conflict. He fell asleep to the TV, which is still playing a vintage kung fu movie.
Off Jason goes on his rounds to the pawn shop to get more movies. The boss, Hop, is an elderly geezer, later revealed as one of our stars in latex wrinkles. Jason is teased by the sight of an ancient war staff in the shop's vault. On his way home, a local gang of thugs stomps Jason and forces him to participate in a burglary of the pawn shop. Hop catches a bullet, and Jason grabs the staff—and still, no sign of Monkey King. Seeing the posters of Jet Li and Jackie Chan in elegiac poses for the end of what now must seem like a classic era of Hong Kong cinema, you would expect Rob Minkoff's The Forbidden Kingdom to have more gravity to it. But we keep going back to the Western kid.
After he is hurled through the gateless gate to ancient China, Jason tries to learn kung fu and receives the traditional roughing-up any trainee endures in these movies. The truth is that the movie is about Jason, who meets two teachers: the Taoist drunken master Lu Yan (Chan) and the Buddhist Silent Monk (Jet Li). Together, they voyage to the palace where the Jade Emperor lies entranced in meditation. Meanwhile, his usurping warlord—who imprisoned the Monkey King in a stone statue—is plundering the countryside and helping himself to the local girls. A cackling witch with white prehensile hair flies in, and the companions follow the road to the Jade City. (Oh, hell, says the viewer, sorrowing for long-lost Tuesday nights at the Towne Theater, Minkoff is ripping off The Wizard of Oz.)
An animator turned director (he helmed Disney's The Lion King), Minkoff retards to kid level the kind of film that used to be an all-ages entertainment. Angarano is not much better than Ralph Macchio. As for the stars, they do what they used to do, or try to, in fighting sequences choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping; this movie is an annuity for performers whose best days are past. Even if the lines were composed in English by scriptwriter John Fusco, they sound read off of subtitles anyway. You can recall Victor Wong's line from Big Trouble in Little China, characterizing Eastern philosophy as "a salad bar" from which you take a little of everything. Still, it's strange to see the Taoist offering up a Zen koan (the one about how a full cup can't be filled) or to see a Buddhist assaulting his rival by pissing on him and his sacred scroll. Hong Kong cinema survived the Communist takeover; who knows if it'll survive this blatant Hollywoodization?
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