It has been eight years since Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and four years since Zhang Yimou’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers dominated critics’ annual ten-best lists. It’s a little late, in other words, to be hiring Crouching Tiger’s cinematographer (Peter Pau) and choreographer (the esteemed Yuen Wo Ping, who also supervised the wires for The Matrix) in a blatant attempt to hitch a ride on a trend that has already exhausted itself. A year ago, Zhang’s Curse of the Golden Flower, despite some decent reviews and the return of his muse, Gong Li, came and went from theaters with nary a blip on our fickle pop radar.
Imported stars (Jackie Chan and Jet Li) and Hong Kong crew notwithstanding, Forbidden Kingdom is an American studio take on the arthouse wuxia picture. With this in mind, it is understandable that director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) and screenwriter John Fusco (Young Guns, Hidalgo) give us a main character with whom we Americans can presumably better identify: a bullied white teen played by Michael Angarano (Lords of Dogtown), an actor fated to become our time’s Ralph Macchio. Under the tutelage of Chan and Li, Angarano learns kung fu, fulfilling a prophecy about the Monkey King who, as legend has it, can only be brought back from the dead by a time-traveling nerd from South Boston.
While neither the fight scenes nor the drama are anything special, Forbidden Kingdom’s artificial mise-en-scène is memorable. For a movie purportedly shot in China, the snow-strewn mountain peaks, sacred temples and stone palaces all do a wonderful impression of an old-fashioned Hollywood soundstage.
Opens April 18