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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Forbidden Kingdom (The)

I'm going to tell you right up front that when I saw that the Essex Cinemas was showing The Forbidden Kingdom I cringed. I really didn’t want to sit through it because these “chop socky” features are not my thing. I tried to like martial arts movies a long time ago. I really did; I even sat through a midnight-to-dawn showing of a Shaolin martial arts extravaganza, which included some of the bloodiest and least understandable movies I’d ever seen. Of course, this was all because of a guy. Isn’t it always?

Somewhere out there is a brilliant scientist named Martin Havlicek who broke my heart back in the late 1970s because he was more interested in physics than physiques and spent his free time immersed in martial arts when I wanted him to consider marital arts. After that, I said the closest I would ever come to being laid out by the Chinese would be when I let Calgon™ and its’ “ancient Chinese secret” ingredient “take me away” and lay my out in my bubble bath.

So now, decades later, I come face-to-face with
The Forbidden Kingdom. Okay, in the interest of full disclosure I have come close to watching a martial arts movie since
Shao Lin men, Fury in the Shaolin Temple and Shaolin Kung Fu Master. I’ve kept my eye on Jackie Chan over the years, and I’ve been a fan of the Rush Hour series, but I wouldn’t consider those anywhere near what you’d expect when you put Chan with that other master of the flying feet, Jet Li (War). Seeing the two of them on the poster made me fret again about exploding heads, indecipherable plots, and the whereabouts of a certain Czech physicist.

Fortunately, two of my three worries were dismissed early on as it became apparent quickly that this was going to be a much more family-friendly film than those earlier guts-and-goreapaloozas.
This is a modern fairy tale for boys in much the same way Nim’s Island is for girls. The story concerns teenager Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano; The Final Season), a kid obsessed with Hong Kong cinema but bullied by the other guys at his school who ridicule his hobby and push him around for being into kung fu in the first place. This leads to a tragic confrontation with the elderly owner of the store where Jason hangs out and gets his videos because Jason is forced by his chief tormentor, a Cretin named Lupo (Morgan Benoit; Last Hour) to trick Old Hop (Jackie Chan), the store’s proprietor, to open up late at night since he trusts Jason, and then Lupo barges in with his gang, shoots the Chinese merchant, and robs the shop.

As Old Hop lies on the floor with what appears to be a fatal wound, he urges Jason to take an antique staff mounted on the nearby wall and return it to his rightful owner. So sets up the openin
g to an incredible and awesomely beautiful journey as Jason finds himself swept back in time to ancient China. There, he discovers himself wrapped up in the living mythology of the Chinese gods and finds that the staff he carries is actually the magical weapon of the Monkey King (Jet Li), a good-hearted but mischievous god turned to stone by a vengeful god, The Jade War Lord (Collin Chou; The Duel). After that, “Jade” tossed the staff into the ether, thus eliminating the only thing capable of restoring the Monkey King to flesh other than the Jade War Lord himself. What he never expected was that the ‘ether’ would turn out to be our world and that eventually the predictions that sages came to foretell in the hundreds of years since this event were now coming true ~ a traveler from afar had arrived to return the staff to the good king.

Much like The Wizard of Oz, The Forbidden Kingdom sees its young protagonist join up with a trio of much-needed allies along his trip, including the wise Silent Monk (also Jet Li in a dual role), the courageous Lu Yan (Jackie Chan, also in a dual role), and the heart-felt Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu; Wu yue zhi lian). All bring enormous support (and martial arts skills) to help Jason as he faces an army of Jade Warriors sent by the War Lord himself. In addition to this seemingly endless barrage of sword-swinging knights, worse yet, they must also contend with the evil witch, Ni Chang (Bingbing Li; Hu die fei), the wearer of the worst wig this side of Ernest Angley.

The whole movie is gloriously filmed with intense colors that compliment the rich textures of the fabrics and the sets as well as the stunning scenery around Heng Dian,
China, where the movie was shot. It truly was an international effort, with an almost exclusively Chinese cast and crew, but written by an American (John Fusco; Hildago), directed by a nice Jewish boy (Rob Minkoff; The Haunted Mansion), and executive produced by an Italian (Raffaella De Laurentiis; The Last Legion). Perhaps that’s fitting because the story is one that will be heralded by people around the world and is definitely one that families can enjoy together and come away from feeling better for sharing Jason’s experience as he learns about loyalty, friendship, and, most of all, in how to trust in himself.

When the movie was over, I was almost ashamed to think I’d gone into the theater with such a bad attitude as I found myself actually sitting throughout the movie smiling most of the time, a great deal due to the performance of young actor Michael Angarano, who played Jason. Besides proving to be a capable martial artist, Angarano’s expressive features and puppy-dog eyes bring so much to t
he tale as they react almost child-like to the wonder of all the amazing things they take in during this adventure. In essence, his eyes become the audience’s own. Beyond that, though, there was just something about him that nagged at me. Where did I know him from? He seemed so familiar somehow, but I couldn’t place him, other than that I remembered those beautiful, soulful eyes from somewhere. I told my pal Karen Chapman, who manages the Essex Cinemas along with her husband Dale, that he must have been a child actor all grown up and when I got home I checked, and, sure enough, he is. So if you check out The Forbidden Kingdom (and, you really, really should) and you think you know “Jason” from somewhere long ago, you do. He played Jack McFarland’s adopted son Elliott from 2001 – 2006 on tv’s “Will & Grace.” He was such a sweet boy then, but even more fetching now. I predict this is one lad with a great acting future ahead of him.

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