This was a Q & A for DimSum about the first joining of Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
The Forbidden Kingdom marks Jackie and Jet’s first, long awaited pairing on screen. Was it worth the wait?
Yes and no. Jackie and Jet are the two giants of martial arts cinema post-Bruce Lee and the pair facing each other on-screen creates an anticipation as great as Pacino and de Niro facing each other in Heat. And when the two finally meet there’s a palpable crackle of excitement in the air. However, the actual square off, while immensely enjoyable, is a touch lacking.
It’s difficult to pin-point. Technically everything is well executed and there’s a distinct difference in their martial arts style that’s both character and actor led. You’re never quite sure who has the upper hand. What probably goes against the scene is their on-screen legacy. There’s a sense that the fight can only end in both of them achieving some moral high-ground. The fact that they both must win somehow makes their conflict less dangerous.
It’s quite a long fight scene by western standards.
There’s a central purpose to their combat, ostensibly for control of a magical bo stick that can re-animate the petrified Monkey King. They’re also battling for the fate of our hero – a teenage boy thrust from the modern world to ancient China. There are also the vexed questions of editing and wirework.
Wirework? In a Jackie Chan film?
The wirework marks a problem in The Forbidden Kingdom as a whole. The film’s edited in such a way that those less experienced at martial arts can appear more skilled on screen. But the more experienced practitioners’ fights are similarly cut so as not to appear jarring. It makes for spectacular visuals and is perfectly realised in this fantasy context but, call us old-fashioned, exaggerated wirework doesn’t really suit Jackie Chan’s style.
You’ve written a well-regarded guide to Jackie’s films. What makes him so special? And is The Forbidden Kingdom a worthy entry in his filmography?
Jackie Chan will always hold a special place in the history of not just martial arts films but cinema as a whole. The key to his success is the marrying of action and comedy within his films – often simultaneously. It’s important to remember that Chan is also a director and choreographer, two elements to his work that are often overlooked.
Instead of relying on, say, Shaw Brothers films for his action inspiration, he looks to Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd but imbues their brand of comedy with hard hitting action. Ten years ago Forbidden Kingdom would not have rated too highly (or too badly) in Chan’s résumé but, if truth be told, his output post Rush Hour has been marked by varying quality, particularly with the films he’s made in the west. In that context Forbidden Kingdom is a highlight of his recent films in that it does blend elements of his Hong Kong films and his western ones.
The Forbidden Kingdom contains lots of deliberate references to martial arts movies. Do you think, as a film, it can encourage western audiences unfamiliar with Hong Kong movies to try them out for themselves?
We hope so. Chan’s films in particular can tempt people into exploring his Hong Kong output, especially the more family orientated films. This is not the case with Jet Li who took on the role in Forbidden Kingdom partly so that his young daughters could actually watch something he was in that wasn’t excessively violent.
However, putting our gloomy hats on, weaning audiences away from Hollywood has proved difficult in the past, pictures such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon being mere blips on the radar. Chan himself took several attempts to break into the Hollywood market with often disastrous results. Strangely, the film that Forbidden Kingdom constantly references is Ronnie Yu’s Brigitte Lin classic The Bride with the White Hair – probably not the most suitable film for the target 12A audience!
Jackie and Jet have both done films in the west. How successful do you think those films have been in displaying what made them so popular back home?
Variably. Overall Jet has been more successful in making the cross over partly because his style of action cinema is more easily absorbed into western concepts of ‘the action film’ than Jackie’s but also because he’s not tied into the very shallow view of comedy in the west. Also Jet’s benefited from superior French-backed action films like Kiss of the Dragon and the totally unhinged Danny the Dog (Unleashed).
Jackie on the other hand has had to endure three outings opposite Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films (the second is at least sporadically interesting), being Steve Coogan’s sidekick in the plodding Around the World in 80 Days and, worst of all, a truly dreadful foil to Jennifer Love Hewitt in the abysmal The Tuxedo. His most enjoyable western outing is the utterly loopy Shanghai Noon because this sees Jackie very much in the same mould as his Hong Kong films, and features the kind of energetic, humorous and imaginative fight choreography that makes his films so memorable.
Looking back at their careers, what are your recommendations as the best Jackie and Jet films for those who maybe haven’t seen any?
There are so many! Both Jackie and Jet have some stunning films on their CVs. These are our favourites:
Project A 1 & 2
Police Story 1 & 2
Drunken Master 2
Danny the Dog (not a HK/China film!)
Once Upon a Time In China
Dr Wai in ‘The Scripture With No Words’