Film Review: Somewhere over the Great Wall
When attacked by Boston street thugs, Jason (Michael Angarano), kung fu movie buff extraordinaire, is swept off to ancient China, unwittingly tasked with the return of a legendary weapon to the Monkey King.
The stuff of Chinese legend, the Monkey King was forever tormenting the Jade Warlord with his magic bo staff, and was eventually turned to stone by an evil trick from the warlord. Prophecy declared that a traveler would return the staff and break the curse.
Met by drunken immortal Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) and orphan warrior Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), Jason must forget his own cinema kung fu and relearn the art properly in order to complete his task. The silent monk, played by Jet Li, joins the party, but only after an extended fight scene, choreographed by Woo-ping Yuen.
Yuen’s style definitely shows through, utilizing everything around the fighters – carved statues, the integral staff, personal effects, even the other characters who are just standing by.
Later in the film, as a white-haired assassin (Li Bingbing) appears, the viewer may start to notice a Wizard of Oz theme appear – a traveler who just wants to get home, three companions, each with their own reason to follow, and an all-powerful ruler who sends the traveler home to face the world he left behind with new skills.
With solid acting from Jackie Chan and a surprisingly good performance from Jet Li – he smiles, even – The Forbidden Kingdom is a strangely familiar take on a classic story, but you won’t be worrying about that as you get drawn in by the sweeping cinematography from Peter Pau. Lush green mountainsides contrast with parched wastelands during travel sequences, and there is no end to the number of well-picked angles during fight scenes.
Though the fighting feels hectic and quick, the camera won’t make viewers nauseous, nor will anyone get lost in the space of the fight.
The visual effects are spectacular because they are so subtle – the director doesn’t bash you in the head with explosions or huge, intricate, computer-generated characters and backgrounds. No, visual effects are limited to well-constructed, well-executed energy attacks from the Jade Warlord and the Monkey King in a climactic battle and some outstanding wire-work – just enough to feel like a badly-dubbed kung fu movie’s fight scenes, but not overused.
The Forbidden Kingdom also has a distinct House of Flying Daggers feel, crossed with some elements of Jackie Chan’s distinctive humor – when shot in the back, he only complains of his thirst for more wine.
Though rated PG-13, the movie is in no way a "kid movie" – the writing is superb and leaves enough to the imagination to be interesting, while not being twisted or confusing. This is a perfect movie for escaping from everyday life and immersing yourself in a separate world, away from normal concerns – who really worries about helping a magic monkey beat an immortal enemy?
Frankly, this is the perfect movie for a late night out without any planning, and will easily earn at least a nomination for visual effects and cinematography.
And hey, if it makes Jet Li smile, you can be sure it’ll make you smile.