Jackie Chan. Jet Li. On their own, these martial artists are not only captivating, but relative locks for a good box-office showing. How about together in the same film? That’s the stuff of martial-arts fantasy. Well, it was, anyway, until The Forbidden Kingdom hit theaters last year, the first movie to include both stars in feature roles.
As expected with the two stars teaming up, Forbidden Kingdom is an entertaining film, just not as compelling as expected. With Chan and Li, Forbidden Kingdom mixes comedy and action, but its fantasy elements seem forced into its modern-day tale, and the pairing of stars ironically has a negative impact on the film as a whole.
In some respects, the martial artists have such divergent styles (Chan’s comedy versus Li’s action) that the film’s odd vibe makes sense; it’s often hard to marry such acting nuances. The Forbidden Kingdom tells the story of a teenage boy who stumbles upon the age-old staff of the Monkey King, who was entombed millennia ago by an ancient warlord in a parallel universe. As this boy is confronted by modern-day bullies, he is magically transported to the parallel universe to free the Monkey King, return his staff, bring order to the universe and learn martial arts (from Chan and Li, of course), which will help him beat the bullies back in the United States. He also ends up saving Chan’s life, resulting in Chan becoming a “guardian” for the boy back in America — which the teen only realizes once he’s returned the staff.
The Forbidden Kingdom does a serviceable job telling this odd combination of wushu-like fantasy and Karate Kid reality, with Li occasionally cracking a joke and Chan focusing more on action and doing fewer slapstick-style stunts. but the dynamic actually seems confused, almost like both men were afraid to “show the other one up” or “steal the show.” This is a great sign of respect, of course, but it keeps both stars from really performing at the top of their game.
One thing that is at the top of its game is the film’s high video quality, a reputation that Lionsgate is known for on Blu-ray and is delivered in every way in. The 1080p AVC MPEG-4 encoded transfer maintains a rock-solid bitrate of 30mbps or higher, even in scenes with a dozen or so kung fu ensigns from the Jade Army. The colors in this fantastical vision of China absolutely pop from the screen, as well, vivid examples of how successful a wushu-inspired color palette can be. The only video shortcomings are the CG and green-screen work, which actually seem low-budget and cheesy in most scenes. The White-haired Demoness’ hair is a great effect in the latter half of the movie, but that’s really the lone bright point, with the mid-air wushu being much more obvious in its cable work than similar work in, say, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.
In terms of the audio, once you get past the low dialogue levels at several points, the 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio fails to disappoint. In many action movies, the subtleties of the 7.1 experience can be overwhelmed by big explosions, but in a stylistic martial arts film like The Forbidden Kingdom, every missed kick, missed punch and smashed urn is picked up with incredible fidelity. I was really quite surprised by the nuances here, which actually makes the audio a highlight of the film’s high definition presentation.
The Blu-ray bonus features are nothing to sneeze in terms of quantity, but they mirror the overall film in their inability to live up to their potential. All non-commentary and non-PiP bonus features are in 1080i.
Commentary with Director Rob Minkoff and Write John Fusco: All things considered, this is actually a pretty good commentary track. Whereas most such tracks focus on pedestrian production and filming aspects, this one explores character background, the thinking behind casting certain actors, Jackie Chan’s personal background (it’s fascinating, in case you didn’t know) and some of the nuances of Americans making a “Chinese” film. Sure, the duo also comments on some arguably boring things, but when you have to fill an hour and 45 minutes with mostly non-stop commentary, you’re bound to fill the dead space with a few pointless pieces of information.
BonusView Picture-in-Picture: This feature runs the entire length of the film and includes a pretty diverse mix of PiP content. Although not every scene has a PiP feature, the ones that do are done very well. They’re generally a good mix of interviews about producing the scene at hand, spliced alongside behind-the-scenes footage of filming the scene while the finished product plays in the full-frame background. The interviews are good at keeping the topics fresh, too, so it’s not always about special effects or stunts. For instance, in one PiP feature, Jackie Chan talks about using Marlon Brando for his inspiration for the old man’s voice, while in another scene, the crew discusses choosing locations and unanticipated production obstacles. It’s a good mix, and a great use of footage that probably wouldn’t have otherwise made the cut in a traditional making-of featurette. The one thing that’s odd is that you can’t access any of the other bonus features or the interactive menu while in this mode.
Storyboarding and Previz: The Movie Before the Movie (6:28): This feature is all about the CG-like stick-figure mockups used to envision the film before a single frame was actually shot. It’s neat to see these “3D storyboards,” and it’s amazing to see how much pre-production goes into planning the shots and angles. With this sort of preparation, I can’t see how the editors or director ever had to cut scenes or shoot more than two takes per scene.
The Kung Fu Dream Team (10:37): In some respects, The Forbidden Kingdom is the modern martial-arts fan’s wet dream, and this feature explores just how much filmmakers are martial arts fanboys, too. They dreamed that both Jackie Chan and Jet Li would be involved, and since they are, you knew this feature about creating choreography for both stars — and their divergent styles — would make the disc. A few snippets from this feature are also used in the Picture in Picture feature, which is odd, as is the fact that Chan and Li are never interviewed together. Neither of these is a deal-breaker, though.
Dangerous Beauty (5:46): This featurette explores the two female leads, Golden Sparrow and the White-haired Demoness, and discusses the martial arts and horse-riding training that both women had prior to production. It also gives some personal background on both actresses, who are unknown in America but stars in China.
Discovering China (8:06): The pre-production and scouting crew prepped for this film in eight weeks, and this feature explores their location choices and how they decided upon them. There’s some gorgeous scenery in China, and the behind-the-scenes footage shows off a lot more of it than you see in the film.
Filming in Chinawood (7:43): Because of the tight preproduction timeline and the need to film on massive sets, much of this movie was filmed in the Hengdian World Studios, the largest movie studio in Asia, but one that most American moviemakers aren’t that familiar with. This feature gives viewers an inside peek at the studio’s sets and capabilities while describing what the crew experienced while filming there.
Monkey King and the Eight Immortals (9:12): Screenplay writer John Fusco wrote this plotline as a bedtime story for his son, basing it in actual Chinese mythology. This is cool and all, being very J.R.R. Tolkein-esque, but really, most of this feature amounts to a plot recap. Honestly, this featurette is little more than an ego stroke to the writer and would’ve been better as minor content in the Picture-in-Picture feature.
Blooper Reel (7:39): Every Jackie Chan movie has these, right? Unfortunately, this is a bit more traditional film than most of Chan’s, so there are fewer “stunts gone wrong” bloopers. In their place are more botched lines and broken props than there are broken bones. It’s still entertaining, but certainly a bit less so than most blooper reels from a Jackie Chan release.
Deleted Scenes (7:47): These six deleted scenes have the option to turn-on commentary from the Director and Writer or leave it off and just watch the scene.
MoLog: This is an interesting blogging program of sorts that you have to download via BD-Live, the first such program of its kind. After spending the 90 seconds or so it takes to download on standard DSL, you’re prompted to register for the service, which will let you bookmark content, insert and animate shapes and text like a telestrator and write “blog entries” about the content, which can then be shared with other MoLog members. Trying to demonstrate the software froze our system (the BD player restarted just fine), so we weren’t able to try it for ourselves, and we would be remiss if we didn’t say “try this at your own risk.”
With all those bonus features, Lionsgate certainly did its part to treat The Forbidden Kingdom as the superstar movie it seems like on paper with a loaded special edition treatment. But all those bonus features just can’t hide the overly deferential acting or the awkward mix of fantasy and realistic elements. With any luck, Chan and Li won’t see The Forbidden Kingdom as an experiment gone wrong, but as a starting point from which to explore more “traditional” films together down the line. Blu-ray owners should see it much the same way: as a movie to watch for its place in history, not for its incredible quality.