Thursday, May 1, 2008


Took my ten-year-old son and his buddy to see FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. With Jackie Chan and Jet Li.

It’s kind of a martial arts version of THE WIZARD OF OZ, but without Judy Garland. A major omission. The lead, Michael Angarano, is one of the recent crop of young male actors who look like they’re in so over their heads they don’t even seem to know it.

This kind of stumbling, hit-and-miss acting sort of works early on in this film, since the lead is supposed to be one of those semi-nerdy teens who’s at sea in the world (no father naturally) and facing unrealistic gangster bullies (supposedly Boston “Southies” though they come across more like something out of a bad teen movie from decades ago, and would be an insult to South Boston's Irish if they weren't so campy and unidentifiable except as typical bad-teen-movie, over-the-top bullies).

But as the movie progresses, he’s supposed to become a hero, only because his acting chops are limited (after the movie my ten-year-old and his friend were making fun of the scene where he finally gets mad and makes his angry face) he’s not believable.

It’s a fantasy film, so a lot of leeway is allowed, but it’s like the kid who played the young Darth Vader in the last STAR WARS films, his lack of acting skill and star power diminished the story even as fantasy.

Angarano works hard, he just doesn’t pull it off. And part of the problem is he has no screen charisma, which may work in realistic films about teens like him, but not in hero fantasies or romances.

The Asian actors, in contrast, are all terrific, even when they overact for the sake of the story and the fantasy. They carry the film, and if there really had been an actor as talented as Judy Garland playing the lead teen boy, this might have been a minor classic. As it is, it already seems like it was made in the 1980s with a teen star we no longer remember.

I’m being a little harsher than usual, but it really is a shame. The special effects in this flick are pretty good and fun to watch, and the location scenes set in China are extraordinary on the big screen.

And Jackie Chan and Jet Li are their usual humorous and powerful screen presences. But the real discovery is Yifei Liu, who plays the young Asian beauty. It’s almost incomprehensible that she would fall for the lead actor, she’s so ethereally beautiful (If only the role had been played by a young Orlando Bloom, who’s proven he can act as well as look worthy of the love of great beauties like Keira Knightly).

What is it with the women in Asian martial arts movies that makes them so beautiful. The lighting? The make up? Their natural God given beauty? Probably a little of all three and more, but whatever it is it works.

Dandon Song and Ziyi Zhang in HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS (not to mention the male lead, Takeshi Kaneshiro), and Ziyi Zhang with Michelle Yeoh in CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, and now Yifei Liu in FORBIDDEN KINGDOM.

It’s worth the price of admission to see their faces on the big screen, as it was once to see the young Elizabeth Taylor or Ava Gardner, Sharon Stone or Halle Berry.

There’s all kinds of beauty, and beauty in all kinds of things, but the kind that lights up a movie screen through the face of a star—be it Johnny Depp or Keri Russell, Takeshi Kaneshiro or Yifei Liu—is a pleasure all its own to behold.

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