Jason is a lover, not a fighter. But he does enjoy watching people fight.
This is especially true when it comes to pulpy martial arts movies—foreign flicks named Monkey in the Tiger's Eyes Challenge or Master With Cracked Fingers which star folks like, say, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Jason's room looks like a shrine to kung fu icon Bruce Lee, and he spends most of his free hours in a Chinatown pawn shop/video store run by a wizened chap called Old Hop.
"You watch too much Hong Kong Phooey," the old man tells Jason. But he appreciates the youth's company all the same.
Enter the bullies. Led by a punk named Lupo, these ruffians convince Jason—aided by their fists and feet of fury—to lead them to Old Hop's shop so they can rob the place. Old Hop, when he realizes he's been had, thumps one of the thieves with an ancient-looking staff. What does he get for his fortitude? A bullet in the chest. The old man, apparently in the throes of death, pushes the staff into Jason's hands and tells the bewildered boy to return it to its "rightful owner."
Never mind that the rightful owner is the Monkey King, a mythical figure in Chinese lore, or that returning the staff to him will involve a trip back in time, space and reality. Never mind that the fearsome Jade Warlord, his white-haired witch and his inexhaustible army stand in Jason's way. After all, he has help. There's the drunken beggar Lu Yan. The stoic Silent Monk. And Golden Sparrow, a beautiful girl who has the habit of talking about herself in the third person and a talent for killing folks with her hair pins.
Plus, Jason learns, he's actually helping to fulfill some sort of prophecy. And it's always easy to fulfill prophecy, right?
The Forbidden Kingdom is, in many ways, a movie about camaraderie, loyalty and perseverance. While the main characters have low regard for each other at first, all gradually gain an appreciation, respect and affection for one another. Jason becomes particularly self-sacrificing, risking life, limb and potential immortality to do the right thing.
The monk cautions Golden Sparrow about the dangers of revenge ("We must not feel hatred for him, or he wins"). It's a hard sell for Sparrow. After all, the Jade Warlord killed her parents and burned her village, and now she wants to make the Warlord pay.
"She will not offer him forgiveness, Monk," Sparrow says.
"Vengeance has a way of rebounding on oneself," the monk answers.
Meanwhile, when confronted with the bullies of his own place and time, Jason uses his newfound martial arts skill to defend himself, but he does so reluctantly. "You don't have to do this," he cautions the bully leader, as the leader is preparing to attack him again.
Adherents to Western religions must pick one spiritual path. You can't be, for instance, Christian and Muslim at the same time. But Eastern religion and philosophy is, in some ways, more of a all-you-can-eat buffet. The Forbidden Kingdom reflects that free-for-all vibe, creating a stew that blends religion, traditional Chinese literature and the modern popcorn flick.
Thus, The Forbidden Kingdom is brimming with overt references to all kinds of Eastern spirituality. And while the film's obvious purpose is to spin out an adventure yarn, not a religious primer, some of the themes found here are worth some discussion:
The Monkey King is a towering mythical and literary figure in China—perhaps akin to Hercules in Greece or King Arthur in Britain. Not technically a god (though some folks do worship him as such), he's more of an immortal mischief maker. In original legends he torments the Jade Emperor (head god of the Taoist pantheon) and once lost a bet with the Buddha (patching together, as you'll notice, two religious paths into the story of one figure).
Since the Monkey King is a prime player in The Forbidden Kingdom's plot, it's not surprising that Taoism and Buddhism would work their way into the spaces around him. Golden Sparrow speculates that the beggar is a Taoist immortal, and at one point the beggar tries to cast a spell to get it to rain—something Taoist immortals should be able to conjure up without too much trouble.
[Spoiler Warning] We learn, however, that the beggar isn't immortal. He was close, he says, but never made the cut—until the end of the film, when he drinks an elixir of immortality.
The Silent Monk, meanwhile, appears to be a Buddhist monk. He's spent half his life trying to reunite the Monkey King with the staff, which makes this quest a religious pilgrimage of sorts. As it turns out, the monk is actually an imperfect clone of the Monkey King himself, made from one of the king's hairs (an ability true to the original Chinese tradition).
The Jade Emperor makes an appearance, too, and there are a couple of scenes that take place in the Taoist version of Mount Olympus—sort of a mellow party pad for the gods. Both the Monkey King and the Jade Warlord use magic. And there's a nod to reincarnation at the end.
Hinting at the spiritual components of Eastern fighting styles, the beggar tells Jason that kung fu isn't a martial art. Rather, he says, it's a state of mind that can be tapped by anyone who has the will and perseverance to do so. The monk says that kung fu is a passive and gentle path, best exemplified by water, which is pliable and flexible, but with persistence and grace can wear down rocks.
Before being zapped to China, Jason talks with a few girls who wear revealing tops. It appears as if he and the beggar accidentally stumble into a brothel of some kind, filled with loads of courtesans and a handful of customers (all of whom are fully clad). One plump customer has his face stroked by two of the girls. Audiences also see dancers in midriff-baring tube tops.
The Jade Warlord leers at, and strokes the faces of, two obviously fearful women. It's pretty clear he'll force himself upon them when he has the time, though this is never explicitly stated.
Old Hop makes a sly reference to masturbation.
You'd expect to see a lot of martial arts combat in a martial arts movie. And The Forbidden Kingdom fulfills the promise of its genre. If talk is cheap, this movie isn't.
The air is full of flying fists, feet and assorted weaponry. The beggar and the monk knock around hundreds of bad guys on the way to the Jade Warlord's hideout. They must also face a witch who carries a wicked whip and whose long, white hair makes Medusa's locks seem positively benign.
Most of the violence is bloodless, though. And its choreography is intricate. Of particular note: The beggar and the monk square off at one point, fulfilling a heretofore unrequited longing of many a kung fu fan to see respective stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li go mano a mano. Further, many of the fight scenes are downright comical.
There are, of course, exceptions to this bloodless exchange of exotic punches and kicks. Jason's encounters with the bullies are starkly realistic. And Sparrow kills two bad guys with her hair pins. In flashback, we see Sparrow's village burn and her mom get shot in the back with an arrow. The beggar also gets an arrow in the back, though we don't see the impact. The Jade Warlord stabs one of his own warriors in the gut, and we see him order the stabbing of a villager. He graphically bloodies one of the main characters during a confrontation. That character, and others, die.
[Spoiler Warning] Then, in the end, the Warlord dies: Audiences see his face start to mottle and, as he falls into a pit of lava, burn.
Crude or Profane Language
Jason's modern-day bullies swear frequently in their short time onscreen, letting loose the s-word twice and a couple of other swears ("b--ch," "p-ss") for good measure. Jesus' name is misused once, and one of the bullies unleashes an Asian epithet.
Drug and Alcohol Content
The beggar drinks constantly. Sparrow speculates that wine is his elixir. (As a potential immortal, he needs elixir like Popeye needs spinach.) Regardless, he goes through the film in various states of real or feigned inebriation.
In one scene, the monk scowls at the beggar as he drinks, and the beggar asks the monk if he's sinning. "Yes," the monk says. "It's sinful not to share." And with that, he takes the wine and guzzles his fair portion.
Other Negative Elements
Some of Jason's good deeds manifest themselves in bad ways. When the beggar is felled by an arrow, Jason offers the Jade Warlord the staff in exchange for an elixir of immortality—the only substance that can save the beggar's life.
(Jason's heart is in the right place: He wants to save his friend's life. And he never thinks about drinking the elixir himself, even though a quick sip would make him immortal.)
After the beggar tries to cast a spell to make it rain, he feels moisture on his face and sees spatters of precipitation on the prayer sheet he's been using. The spell worked, right? No. The monk was just urinating on both. The monk also says that one of Jason's martial arts positions is "very good—for taking a dump."
Hey, The Three Stooges and Adam Sandler have their fans. But in my opinion, no one makes violence more fun than Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Despite the occasional crass behavior and muddy religious current that runs through this film, I can't help but appreciate its fast action, beautiful scenery and nice little life lessons squirreled in between the fight scenes.
As I watched, though, I began to think: When we see violence in film, what form is more menacing? The graphic, horrific violence we might see in an R-rated Oscar winner such as No Country for Old Men? Or the graceful, cartoonish crowd-pleaser violence we see in The Forbidden Kingdom? One makes you wince and cringe. The other makes you smile and cheer. But is one more damaging than the other?
The answer, I think, depends on the person watching, in part. And it depends on the story that's being told. And it depends on the writer who created the story. And the director who executes it. Nobody's ever been able to fully answer this question to the satisfaction of all interested parties. But I guarantee you that it's a question well worth asking all the same.