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The Forbidden Kingdom (2008): ***

Directed by Rob Minkoff

Say you have a friend who isn't very movie savvy. One day he comes up to you and says, "Y'know, I've never really seen any Kung Fu movies, and I'd kinda like to get into that genre." The Forbidden Kingdom would be a perfect movie to show him. It's kinda like a "My First Wuxia" movie. Start with this one, and then a few movies later he might be ready for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and then a few movies later he might finally be ready for Jet Li's Hero.

This is, of course, the movie that Wuxia nerds have been waiting, oh, about 20 years for: Jackie Chan and Jet Li together in one movie. I'm sure many, many of them will be disappointed because the The Forbidden Kingdom is a very light, breezy, Chinese/American hybrid movie. It's like an American outsider's tour of the Wuxia genre, and it briefly touches here and there on a lot of the staples of the genre.

The premise: Jason, a modern-day white boy (played by the main character from Sky High), comes across the staff of Sun Wukong aka the Monkey King (played to the hilt by Jet Li), and it transports him back to Ancient China so he can give it back to Monkey. He is discovered by a drunken poet of sorts (a very funny Jackie Chan), and after a couple of fights with hordes of villainous soldiers they meet Golden Sparrow, a girl bent on vengeance. Soon they are beset upon by a monk played, suspiciously, by Jet Li. Just like in any comic book crossover, when two iconic heroes first meet each other there has to be a misunderstanding so that there can be at least one issue of the two fighting before the misunderstanding is resolved and they team up to fight the real bad guy.

It is a great thing to see a full-on, wire-fu fight between the two Wuxia icons, and the film lingers on this sequence for a bit longer than it really needs to, but who cares? It's great fun, and a great fight sequence.

At any rate, these four people decide to team up to traverse across the Jianghú to deliver the staff back to Monkey so he can be freed of his curse of imprisonment in stone (where he's been for the past 500 years after being tricked by the villainous Jade Warlord).

Lu Yan, the Monk, and Golden Sparrow take Jason on a months-long journey across a Jianghú of bamboo forests, tall grass, stunning streams and waterfalls, a desert, beautiful blossoming trees, and mountains, all the while trying to teach some real Wushu to this poor white boy from the future. The Jade Warlord, learning of their journey, hires a white-haired witch to kill 'em all. There's a big final fight in the palace of the Jade Warlord, high up on "Five-Elements Mountain."

There's nothing terribly original or innovative about this movie. If you've seen a lot of films in the Wuxia genre then you've likely seen all of this before in one form or other. But Jackie Chan is very funny, and he and Jet Li have really good chemistry together. Golden Sparrow is absolutely gorgeous and predictably tragic. The scenery is beautiful. The wire-fu is well choreographed (by Wo-Ping Yuen, no less). The film whisks along with very few surprises. It's like a tour guide, showing you a bunch of scenes from other Wuxia films. But then that's the point of this movie. The Forbidden Kingdom is like the ultimate Wuxia pastiche. Even the poor white boy's bedroom is plastered with posters from dozens of Chinese martial arts films, and he regularly goes to a pawn shop (run, suspiciously, by Jackie Chan in heavy old-man makeup) to buy Wuxia DVDs. The Forbidden Kingdom is not intended to be a revolutionary, innovative, new take on the Wuxia genre. It is supposed to be a distillation of it, and in that it succeeds.

The one thing I really appreciated about the movie was its depiction of the Chinese world of gods and immortals. The Chinese Heaven isn't very much of a paradise; it's kind of a bumbling bureaucracy with the Jade Emperor at the top, and rows of gods and buddhas and immortals below him. Much of the plot revolves around elixirs of immortality and secret ways to kill gods and immortals, and a bunch of the various and arcane rules surrounding them. And Jet Li kicks all ass as the legendary Monkey King, giggling and prancing and making a mockery of all of the gods and being absolutely invincible in battle, much to the amusement of the Jade Emporer (and the aggravation of the Jade Warlord).

So: The Forbidden Kingdom is a pleasant, breezy, fun, "beginner's" Wuxia film with some good action and good performances by Jackie Chan and Jet Li. It isn't bad by any means, but people expecting a mind-blowing, unbelievably fantastic film will be sorely disappointed.

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