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’
Score composed by John Debney
Directed by Tom Shadyac
Written by Steve Koren, Mark O’Keefe and Steve Oedekerk
Principle Cast: Jim Carrey, Morgan Freeman, Jennifer Aniston, Philip Baker Hall, Catherine Bell, Lisa Ann Walter, Steven Carell
Running time: 101 minutes
Screen Ratio 1:1.85
UK Release 26th June 2003
“Cue: cheesy inspirational music” announces TV presenter Bruce Nolan (Jim Carrey) and the film appropriately obliges as he runs in slow motion, dousing children in milk and failing to reach the beakers in their outstretched hands. He is covering an attempt to bake the biggest chocolate chip cookie in the history of Buffalo. Of course the music is the theme from Chariots of Fire by Vangelis.
But Bruce wants more than a constant stream of silly season coverage – he wants a job as news anchorman on Eye Witness. Of course he fails to get it, gets stuck in traffic jams, beaten up by a gang and suffers any number of minor inconveniences because that’s what happens to main characters in contemporary comedies. Rather than be content that he has a job, an attentive girlfriend (Jennifer Aniston) and a nice apartment, he spirals into rage and blame. And naturally he points the finger at God as being responsible for his mediocre life. Rather than smite him (admittedly that was Bruce’s suggestion) God (Morgan Freeman) instead decides to give Bruce his job for a while, the only proviso being that he has no control over free will. Armed with divine powers Bruce gets to work… making life better for himself.
Bruce Almighty has a pretty good stab at pitching a high concept piece, but then again so did the limp Anger Management. Once the concept has been established the inevitable cycle of power-responsibility-loss-reconciliation follows the standard story based comedy format. This is no bad thing, once Bruce has realised that he truly has the ability to do what he wants we are shown a variety of sketches to illustrate this combination of comedy and wish fulfilment, to the tune of “I’ve Got The Power” by Snap, naturally. A monkey emerges from the bottom of one of the gang members that beat him up, he can create small breezes that lift skirts Marilyn Monroe style and finds he can even look like Clint Eastwood. All fine and well, but soon the responsibilities of the job start to become apparent, there are all those messy prayers to deal with and his attempt at seducing his girlfriend by reeling in the moon to make it look romantically large causes a devastating tsunami in Japan.
Although slightly overlong the film rarely flags and all the performances are as you’d expect – Carrey is manic and tries to exude lanky geek cool, Aniston is natural but occasionally over expressive and Freeman breezes through a role that, although the screenwriters insist was not written for him, seems to have been written for him. There are comparisons with Groundhog Day, which similarly featured a silly season news reporter who inadvertently obtains powers (in Bill Murray’s case the power to do anything he wants, including suicide, only to have the following day reset to a completely clean slate). Bruce Almighty lacks Groundhog Day’s abrasive edge, where there’s the possibility that power can lead to mania and unspeakable acts. Instead Bruce engages in nothing more than petty frivolities. If the results do begin to become apocalyptic, it isn’t through descent into insanity but through negligence and self-centred determinism.
On top of the God-themed songs (“God-Shaped Hole”, “You’re A God”, “God Gave Me Everything”, a few lines of “What if God Were One of Us?”) Bruce even manages to get Tony Bennett to sing “If I Ruled The World” at a romantic (but ill advised) dinner. Prolific composer John Debney provides a light orchestral score that chirps along pleasantly. Unfortunately the gentle comedy trickles of muted strings and piccolos don’t reflect the action of Bruce removing his violently urinating dog from his damp house – the bodily fluids gags are at odds with a soundtrack that would be more at home in a family film. Similarly the quirky plucked string sections that accompany some of the more earnest moments feel out of kilter. At times however the urge to pastiche pulls off, and given the jokey nature of the songs, it is surprising this doesn’t happen more often. The best of the bunch is a Cecil B de Mille inspired section, where Bruce produces the “parting of the red soup” in a cafe, accompanied by a suitably bombastic and soaring earnest religious style piece. Later there are some “angelic” choral arrangements – the film would really have benefited from more “traditionally biblical” moments like these to emphasise its themes. In the main the score is not even a distraction and, surprisingly, large sections of the film are devoid of a soundtrack at all.
Better than to be expected, but this really means average.