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Smash Cut – “The Forbidden Kingdom”

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Folklore follows a particular template, as most stories within a genre will do from time to time. The Forbidden Kingdom follows that template almost to the letter, and in many respects, it actually works in favor of the film. It’s the surprises that elevate it from just another mediocre kung-fu movie into an enjoyable little ride that doesn’t require a lot of effort.

Teenage kung-fu junkie Jason Tripitakus (Michael Arangano, Seabiscuit) buys bootleg martial arts DVDs off an old Chinese shop owner when he isn’t at home watching them, or asleep, dreaming about them. His dreams take him into a tale of the Monkey King — the ancient character of Chinese folklore, originally conceived four hundred years ago as an allegory for the fabled monk, Xi You Ji.

The film borrows particular elements of the legend — the king’s rebellious nature, and his defiance of authority — but twists them to suit its plot. Instead of earning the wrath of the Jade Emperor, the Monkey King’s pluck gains him favor among the powers on high, until he is betrayed by the Jade Warlord, and cast into stone. Upon his imprisonment, he flings his magical staff far from the kingdom, to await its return by a prophesied warrior.

Naturally, upon visiting the shop for more DVDs, Jason stumbles on to the old bo staff. On his way to school, some punks rough him up and discover his haul of illicit media. They force Jason to let them into the shop, where they proceed to search for cash, trash the store, and shoot the owner. As the owner struggles, he pushes the staff into Jason’s hands, and breathes an order — return this to its rightful master. As he escapes the pursuant punks, Jason falls, and somehow plummets into ancient China.

Once in China, Jason quickly meets the rest of his fellowship, intercut with ample opportunities to see Jackie Chan and Jet Li work their own fun and fabled magic. Fight choreographer Wu-Ping Yuen delivers, as usual, though he does recall in places the tired duels of Neo and Smith.

Themes of revenge, courage and immortality rear their familiar heads, but the filmmakers wisely avoid the temptation to force feed their points. Plenty of fighting, plenty of war, and the plot sticks to stock development. In a few places, it even recalls The NeverEnding Story. Fifteen minutes in, a discerning viewer can probably piece together most of the plot, and its resolution. The script doesn’t ever reach a significant level of depth, but it never aspires to. It manages to land a couple successful twists, if one were not so inclined to check out IMDB before heading to the theater, that is. Otherwise, even those secrets are easily spoiled.

Its one gaffe might rest on the lazy inclusion of a crucifix, which hangs around the neck of — you guessed it — the greasy punk who likes to beat up our hero. Yet, considering hoodlum and gang iconography, one could argue for its accuracy. Kingdom treads comfortable waters. It neither challenges, nor instructs, but it does provide an escape, at least worth the price of a matinée if you’ve got a couple hours to kill. Folklore nerds and kung-fu geeks will likely get the most out of this one. Everyone else be sure to check your brain at the door.

(photo (c) Lionsgate)

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Written by taj

April 20, 2008 at 1:15 am

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