“Who would win in a fight?” is probably my single least favourite Pop Culture-related question.
Largely because there is only one acceptable answer.
I will allow a man who knew a little something about about Pop Culture to give that answer:
In brief, that answer is “Whomever the writer wants.”
There is no way to empirically, definitively test, for example, if one Julius Caesar-sized Alexander the Great could beat a hundred Alexander the Great-sized Julius Caesars (technically, that should be “Julii Caesares”). There is no way to empirically test if Abraham Lincoln could sell more Girl Scout cookies than Gandhi. There’s no way to test if a lightsaber could cut through Superman, or if a Charmander’s fire attacks could reach Gumby’s melting point.
Not to mention the fact that different fictional universes operate under completely different, completely incompatible, incomparable internal rules.
Sure, you could argue that, well, since Goku is always finding ways to go Ever More Super Saiyan, he’d clearly beat Superman, because Superman can’t go Super Saiyan at all. But you’re ultimately left with an argument based on fictional logic centering around people who don’t actually exist, doing things that aren’t possible to measure in real life, as filtered through the writer’s own personal biases or preferences.
I.e., Of course a lightsaber can cut through Superman, because Little J.B. Norman never wanted to be Superman when he grew up.
[And Adult J.B. Norman never cried during the opening credits of a Superman movie…]
Ultimately, if the writer wants Jimmy Olsen to beat Superman, then the writer is going to contrive a way to have Jimmy Olsen beat Superman, even if Superman has to be caught suffering from a particularly severe bout of the Space Flu, even if Jack Kirby himself has to reach down from on high and hand Jimmy the kryptonitest hunk of kryptonite that ever kryptonited.
Actually, that probably happened at some point during the Silver Age…
It, uh, it was the 70s.
The writer (and maybe the editor) is the only person whose opinion on the matter, um, matters.
And, yet, people still obsess over this, still devote way too much time and energy arguing over it.
And, of course, movie studios/scriptwriters/comic book companies know that because of the above, no matter who does end up winning based, the other half of the fanbase is going go apoplectic, so, often the answer “Who would win?” ends up being “Well, actually, they end up putting their differences aside to fight the real bad guy.”
See, for example: Batman v. Superman, Godzilla vs. Kong, basically every X-Men movie since the second one, the Lego movies, the story modes in Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Ultimate, etc, etc.
Which brings us to The Forbidden Kingdom.
If that name sounds familiar to you, it’s probably because it was largely advertised and hyped as the movie where Jackie Chan and Jet Li finally throw down and fight. Though it’s less a “fight” and more of a “spat.”
If you’re going into expecting the best martial arts movie fight scene of all time, you’re going to be disappointed.
Let me get this out of the way right up front: the much-hyped showdown itself is brief and actually kinda disappointing. It’s not the high point of the movie. It’s not the climax of the movie. It’s not the one thing the whole movie is building up towards. It’s not even the best scene in the movie.
Fundamentally, it’s a perfectly fine fight scene — it should be; these two of the of the most prolific cinematic Martial Artists ever. It’s just kind of a lame story beat, all things considered.
Now, it is well-choreographed, but it really is just “There. They fought. It’s done. Never ask us for anything again.”
Though the choreography of the fight does have a pretty neat central conceit of them both wrestling over the Monkey King’s staff, so at any given point they really only have one free hand to fight with.
Again, the fight’s not especially impressive but that added tangle to how it actually plays out does make it at least more interesting that just a regular punch-up.
Admittedly, part of the anti-climax of the encounter is because they’re both the good guys and they’re the film’s two main leads. You could perhaps expect that whoever was playing the good guy would come out on top if the other was the villain. Narratively, it doesn’t really make sense for the two heroes to, like fight to the death for no reason.
It wouldn’t really be in character…
And even from a production point of view, having them fight to a draw makes sense. At least this way, both the Jackie Chan fans and the Jet Li fans are equally disappointed.
Sure, Jackie Chan vs. Jet Li doesn’t live up the hype. But I don’t really fault the studio for hyping it up. Movies are expensive, marketing is hard and “Jackie Chan and Jet Li finally fight” is an obvious selling point.
As it happens, the movie overall is actually pretty cool.
To explain the movie itself a bit better, I originally had a whole big thing about Journey to the West in the preamble to the early versions of this post.
However, since I’ve gone over that in both my recent recommendations for New Legends of Monkey and Inuyasha, I’ll pare it down a little.
The most important character to keep in mind is Sun Wukong the Monkey King.
That’s both because Wukong is one of the most enduringly popular characters in Chinese folklore, and because the whole premise of the movie revolves around bringing the Monkey King’s staff back to where he’s been turned to stone by the evil Jade Warlord to bring him back to life so he can beat up the Jade Warlord and save China.
It’s not really an adaptation of Journey to the West, so much as its own story that borrows some elements from Journey to the West. And the parts it does directly incorporate from Journey to the West are actually pretty faithful — Wukong’s general backstory, slate of powers, and general picaresque personality are basically true to the text.
He’s just being inserted into an original, if fairly generic, story. Kinda like a sort of Chinese-mythology Commedia dell’arte thing.
Incidentally, there’s a bit of a meta joke here with the casting. Jet Li usually plays fairly serious characters. In The Forbidden Kingdom, he’s making (an albeit brief) appearance as one of the most famous trickster characters in Chinese mythology.
Even the character he’s in most of the movie as, the Silent Monk, is a troll and a trickster. There are, uh, reasons for that which I can’t really get into without spoiling the movie…
Conversely, while Jackie Chan’s Lu Yan the Drunken Immortal is a shout-out to his famous role in the Drunken Master movies and most of his career has been spent playing comedic characters, Lu Yan is a fairly self-serious character played straight and is more Sarcastic-Funny than Funny-Funny.
In general, the premise is pretty familiar: bland, fairly unlikeable teenage protagonist ends up transported to a magical Fantasy world languishing under the rule of a evil tyrant-god (the aforementioned Jade Warlord) with a hot evil witch as his primary minion.
Thanks to the Journey to the West influence, it’s actually more interesting than it would be if it was just “generic, vaguely Mediaeval European Fantasy world #2264.”
Especially considering that “Dude gets sucked into a video game/book/movie/whatever, ends up in Mediaeval European Fantasy world #2264″ seems to be everywhere these last few years. I mean, hey, that’s even basically just what Narnia is — and if we want to go back even further, there’s good ol’ Mark Twain, too.
So, all of this to say, sure “Dude gets sucked into a video game/book/movie/whatever” isn’t a novel concept, but at least Forbidden Kingdom manages to do something different with in its execution.
Quick sidebar: the central quest of the movie involves getting the Monkey King’s staff to Five Elements Mountain. In Chinese alchemy and philosophy, there are indeed five elements. Compared to Classical European thought’s four elements — Earth, Air, Fire, and Water — the Chinese system is based around Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water. Basically, in China, Air isn’t an element and what would be considered Earth in the Classical scheme is divided into separate elements.
I’m not enough of a Martial Arts movie buff (though I have enjoyed pretty much every Martial Arts movie I can remember seeing off the top of my head…) or expert in actual Martial Arts to be able to judge if the fight scenes are good based on any objective criteria, but I was impressed with them.
The action is choreographed well (by Yuen Woo-ping, a fairly prolific figure in Hong Kong cinema). The special effects have held up pretty well for a movie from 2008. The set design and costumes all fit the film’s Mythological China vibes.
The soundtrack isn’t necessarily a masterpiece, but it’s at least competent, though I personally find a lot of appeal to the traditional Chinese musical motifs the soundtrack utilises. But, then, I just really like traditional Chinese music.
Of course, as you’d expect from a movie set in a mythologised version of Ancient China, the main character is a white kid named Jason Tripitakas — which sounds Greek to me, but is actually a reference to main character of Journey to the West Sanzang, who you’ll probably recall from my other posts, is also called Tripitaka.
Now, as mentioned, he’s a fairly bland, unlikeable teenage protagonist. But, honestly, when considered as a fairly bland, unlikeable teenage protagonist, inserted into the movie at the behest of one of the main stars, he’s not a terrible character, he actually grows, and Jackie Chan and Jet Li still get most of the focus.
There was a minor controversy around The Forbidden Kingdom, given that it was a movie about Chinese mythology starring a white kid. The objection being that it should have been about a Chinese character learning about their own culture, rather than a white kid basically stealing somebody else’s.
I don’t necessarily disagree, but I think the central theme still works with a white main character. He starts out the movie as only knowing anything about Chinese history and culture through old Kung Fu movies, but once he starts interacting with the Chinese characters, he starts to learn the philosophy behind learning Chinese martial arts.
On the plus side, if this is your opinion of the film, there’s a potential level of additional catharsis to the fact that most of Jason’s Kung Fu training consists of him getting comically beaten up by Jackie Chan and Jet Li…
And, in fact, a lot of the humour comes from them being jerks to Jason, which, like I said, a lot of viewers are going to find pretty cathartic.
Still, he’s not completely a lost cause.
By engaging with the Chinese characters, he comes to learn actual, meaningful things about Chinese culture and philosophy. He engages and gets to learn something beyond the Pop Culture stereotypes.
That’s still a good message, even if it isn’t quite as good as it could be.
Also, it’s worth noting that the movie doesn’t play out as “White kid goes to China, becomes peerless master of Kung Fu, single-handedly saves the day”. It’s “White kid becomes somewhat competent at Kung Fu, contributes to team effort that saves the day.”
The film itself is pretty unsubtle about the fact that there’s a actual philosophy behind Kung Fu, though it never gets to the point of feeling like it’s writing a manifesto at you.
Interestingly, according to Tv Tropes, it was actually Jackie Chan’s idea to make the main protagonist a white kid, though it doesn’t really provide any insight to his logic for why.
In general, having a white lead is usually meant to get white people interested in a film with an otherwise predominantly non-white cast, but as Tv Tropes goes on to note, Jason was basically invisible in the marketing.
I have no real insight of my own, except maybe for the intended message to be encourage white people to engage with Chinese history and folklore in general beyond “They do cool Kung Fu” and with Chinese martial arts beyond “They use it to punch people cool.”
Honestly, I’m sure there are plenty of real-life martial arts instructors who have to deal with dumb kids who’ve watched too many movies or played too many video games who go into martial arts classes with no end goal beyond “I wanna punch people cool.”
To, finish with a big of a digression, though, hopefully an interesting one, keep in mind that I described Jackie Chan’s character as a call-back to his earlier famous roles in Drunken Master and its sequel.
In the Drunken Master movies, Jackie Chan is playing (a highly fictionalised version of) real martial artist and Cantonese folk hero Wong Fei-hung.
Which is significant because Jet Li has also played Wong Fei-hung.
It’s less of a coincidence than it sounds.
Wong Fei-hung is one of China’s most famous martial artists and has, according to Wikipedia, been the subject of 123 films — including, incidentally, 77 where he was portrayed by the same actor, the record for number of times the same actor has played the same character.
So, yeah, it’s an interesting footnote to talking about The Forbidden Kingdom, but maybe not that interesting. Maybe a bit like noting that two famous British actors have both been Hamlet.
The contrast between the two portrayals are pretty interesting, though — I’m sure you could write a solid mid-level Film Studies paper about it. Though, of course, if you’re going to, I demand a citation in your bibliography.
The Drunken Master movies are comedic movies, which is pretty much Jackie Chan’s thing. The Once Upon a Time in China movies are much more serious and unironic action movies.
And they’ve both got awesome theme songs.
Final sidebar: Jackie Chan is also classically trained in Chinese opera and has done several of his own theme songs, including this one. Sidebar to the sidebar: he was also Mulan’s commanding officer in the Chinese dub of Mulan.
But, anyway, The Forbidden Kingdom may not be the best wuxia movie out there. It may, however, be among the best that I can safely talk about on what it is supposed to be a family-friendly blog…
Even something like 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which I don’t remember being that violent (though, admittedly, it’s been a while), is apparently rated R. Though, for what it’s worth, it’s rated 13+ in Quebec and 14A in the rest of Canada — I think I’ve mentioned several times that we tend to be more lenient with ratings.
In comparison, Forbidden Kingdom is PG-13 in the US and PG in Canada. It is definitely less violent and overall more family-friendly than, for example, 36th Chamber.
Overall, it may be a little too long for its own good. It might have worked better without the “Dude gets sucked into a video game/book/movie/whatever” angle. But I don’t think it ever drops beneath the level of being Perfectly Serviceable. It’s basically in English, which I expect it going to make it an easier sell for the vast majority of the English-speaking audience.
Honestly, The Forbidden Kingdom is probably one of the best ways to introduce somebody to the genre, for many of the above reasons.
Copyright 2022 J.B. Norman. Revised and expanded 2023.
Adapted from original posts written in 2021.
Check out my other recommendations here. And check out my socials and email list here:
Sign-up for my email newsletter here.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.