“Lord of the Staff”

I have friends who don’t like movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers because they can’t get behind all of the flying kung fu fighters. Somehow they weren’t able to suspend their disbelief for such fighting sequences, however, if one of the protagonists been bitten by a radioactive spider, it would have been all good. In short, movies like Forbidden Kingdom are no different than a super hero movie, except with samurai gear and monk wear instead of spandex.

While it has been advertised as a vehicle that teams Jackie Chan and Jet Li (FOR THE FIRST TIME!!!), there is a plot attached to the movie and it revolves around Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano who basically does a Shia LaBeouf (Transformers) imitation as he plays Frodo in this adventure). Bullied Jason goes through the Gate of No Gate as part of his journey to return the divine staff of legend to its rightful owner.

Based on the Chinese epic story ‘Journey to the West’, The Forbidden Kingdom truly comes to life with Jackie Chan’s appearance and subsequent fight scenes, recalling his Legend of the Drunken Master role. After he shows up, it’s only a matter of time until Jet Li and we get what we paid to see. Granted, this vehicle is something we would have liked to have seen earlier in their respective careers, not when they are both a bit past their prime. They all but don long white, kung fu master beards in this one.

Like all great super hero team ups, there is a fan-demanded battle between the heroes, a misunderstanding, of course. Like all great kung fu movies, there must be a training sequence as our hero manages to learn a lifetime’s worth of kung fu in under a week. This one, however, is filled with laugh out loud moments.

The true story of the movie is the story Jason finds himself in.

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“It is their opium.” –Jade Warlord (Collin Chou)

Jason finds himself caught up in the whispers of prophecy, the opium/hope of the people under siege by the ways of the ruling empire. The imperialistic power takes the form of the Jade Army, led by the Jade Warlord. The Jade Warlord is like the spiritual aspect to evil taking on a personal dimension in the form of “the adversary.” This evil one is given dominion over the kingdom until the return of their great King.

In the meantime, the Monkey King challenges the reign of the Jade Warlord, his example and disobedience going against the ways of the empire. At one point, the Jade Warlord demanded that the Monkey King bow to him. Their battle seemingly ends with the Monkey King defeated for a time, trapped in stone, awaiting t seeker to find him.

“Go free yourself.” –Monkey King (Jet Li)

What’s interesting to note is that Jason’s quest isn’t for eternal life, the elixir of immortality, but that is a part of what he gains as a part of his journey. His seeking is the point, the end goal unto itself. In some ways, the gospel is analogous to the kung fu training he so desperately wants. It can be had by all, takes many forms, can be found by seekers, adapts to the culture and to circumstance of the seeker, Master and student walking side-by-side (in the way of discipleship) and ultimately, it frees the seekers.

In so pursuing, Jason becomes an instrument of prophecy despite the fact that “He’s not even Chinese.” He, the Silent Monk (Jet Li), the Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), and Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu) form a band of misfits, yet it is so often how the gospel is carried forth, through flawed vessels. Such counterintuitive ways are how the ways of the empire are subverted. “Vengeance has a way of rebounding upon itself,” the Silent Monk warns. Violence and recrimination continue the cycle of evil, but the honesty of confession and forgiveness break the cycle. The key to defeating evil is truth and reconciliation; the power of forgiveness and love.

To be honest, the fight sequences are sometimes too cartoony. The special effects aren’t exactly seamless and you could practically see the guide wires during some action. When the effects over take the fighting, it robs the specialness of, well, the outlandish violence we come to expect from these movies. We still see flashes of what made these two kung fu movie legends great, in fact, The Forbidden Kingdom may make you want to go out and rent some of their classic movies. Still, it’s quite the crowd pleaser of a romp.

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