The Forbidden Kingdom


Clash of Titans.

Clash of Titans.

(2008) Martial Arts Fantasy (Lionsgate) Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Collin Chou, Liu Yifei, Li Bingbing, Morgan Benoit, Deshun Wang, Yu Yuan Zeng, Xiao Dong Mei, XiaoLi Liu, Juana Collignon, Jack Posobiec, Thomas McDonnell, Zhi Ma Gui, Shen Shou He, Bin Jiang, Michelle Du, Crystal Kung, Jia Xu Wei, Ju Shi Xiao, Meng Guo, Alexis Bridges. Directed by Rob Minkoff

It takes great courage to become more than what you are and while that is rare, it does happen. Sometimes it comes from the most unlikely of people.

Jason Tripitikas (Angarano), a resident of a tough neighborhood in South Boston, loves martial arts films. He longs to be like the ancient heroes of China, with Kung Fu skills bordering on the supernatural. The sad reality is, however, that he is afraid, not confident in himself and while very knowledgeable about the various styles and moves of his martial arts heroes, is unable to put them into practice.

He often visits a pawn shop in Chinatown where the elderly proprietor (Chan) often stocks rare and out of print martial arts movies of the Shaw Brothers era. When Lupo (Benoit), a neighborhood bully with a hair trigger, discovers that Jason is friends with the pawn shop owner, he forces Jason to use his influence to get his gang into the store for the purpose of robbing the old man. Jason, too afraid to stand up, reluctantly gives in to his tormentor. Once in the store, however, things go horribly wrong. When the thugs are unable to find the store’s money, in a fit of pique Lupo shoots the old man. Jason, realizing that he is next in line, grabs an old staff to help him get away, but he is trapped on the roof with a gun pointed at his head. That’s when things get really crazy.

It turns out that the staff is a powerful magic weapon that once belonged to the immortal Monkey King (Li), and when the mischievous monarch insulted the powerful Jade Warlord (Chou), the Warlord challenged the Monkey King to a martial arts duel, but tricked the Monkey King into putting down his staff. The Warlord then turned the Monkey King into stone, but the Monkey King, just before the Jade Warrior had worked his magic, sent his staff out of his world and into ours. However, once the staff is returned to its rightful owner, the spell would be broken and the Monkey King would end the tyrannical reign of the Jade Warlord.

This is explained to Jason by a wandering drunken scholar (Chan again), who helps Jason escape from soldiers of the Jade Army. They are helped by a beautiful young musician (Yifei) who is on a mission of her own: vengeance against the Jade Warlord, who killed her family. However, en route to the Mountain of the Five Elements, where the Jade Warlord’s palace is, the staff is stolen by the Silent Monk (Li). After a furious fight with the drunken scholar, they at last realize that they have the same mission and agree to join forces and train young Jason in the ways of kung fu. However, they are being tracked by a wicked witch (Bingbing) who has been sent by the Jade Warlord to retrieve the staff and kill those who carry it. With an entire army and wielders of immense supernatural power arrayed against them, how can they restore the staff to the Monkey King and find Jason a way back home?

In many ways, this is Chan’s movie and he carries it strongly, easily falling into the character of the drunken master whom he has played many times in many movies earlier in his career. Li, whose character the Silent Monk is onscreen most of the time, doesn’t get a lot of dialogue and little to do but be stoic in between bouts of kicking derriere. However, when he is in his persona of the Monkey King early in the movie and then again near the very end, he is delightful, showing an impish sense of humor he rarely gets to display.

Yifei is almost supernaturally beautiful, playing the eventual love interest, and when she does get to fight, she holds her own. Bingbing and Chou are both marvelous in their villainous roles, particularly Bingbing who has a vicious kind of charisma. It is Angarano who winds up being the weak link; it isn’t that he’s bad, he’s just very bland. You get no sense of the inner fortitude he must display as the movie progresses, and his transition from timid nebbish to brave warrior just doesn’t work.

The fight sequences are staged by the great Woo-Ping Yuen, who did the same for the Matrix trilogy as well as many legendary Chinese martial arts films. Although there are several wire sequences (for which Yuen is justifiably best known), the movie isn’t dominated by them. Most of the martial arts sequences are staged on the ground. Another Asian legend, cinematographer Peter Pau, is behind the lens, and his vistas of placid Chinese villages and barren deserts are breathtaking. The sequences that take place on the Mountain of the Five Elements utilize some nicely done CGI. The American-Chinese co-production makes use of some of the best aspects of both schools, an advantage the filmmakers use to the fullest.

Chan is absolutely delightful and clearly dominates the movie. While the storyline is a bit complicated, it is told in a fashion that is not and winds up being a lot easier to follow than you might imagine. The smattering of Chinese mythology and fantasy are nicely adapted for the Western palate, although filmgoers better versed in those subjects might get a kick out of some of the in-jokes and homages the filmmakers insert from time to time. Then, of course, there’s the fight sequence between Chan and Li. Even though in many ways both men are past their primes, they deliver a fight that is absolutely breathtaking and while some might find it overly long, true aficionados won’t want the sequence to end.

Director Minkoff, best known for family movies like The Lion King, The Haunted Mansion and Stuart Little, delivers a movie that while fairly violent, is nonetheless suitable for all but the most sensitive. While there are some pretty impressive throw-downs, the violence is almost of a cartoonish nature and there is little blood and almost nobody dies, at least as far as can be seen.

Even Da Queen liked this one, and she’s not a big martial arts fan. The tone is lighthearted enough to keep things from getting too self-important, while not so lighthearted as to become farce. Duly noted are the Wizard of Oz similarities – the hero falling from the sky, meeting a trio of characters and following the road to the Emerald – or Jade, in this case – City. Sure, there are some people who just will not EVER desire to see any sort of martial arts movie, which of course is a matter of taste, although there’s just a hint of film snobbery in that decision. Those that are willing to brave the waters will find some wonderful entertainment here and while not visually in the league of Hero or Curse of the Golden Flower nor as well-made as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, nonetheless this is worthy of your entertainment dollar. Spend it wisely, grasshopper.

WHY RENT THIS: Chan is absolutely delightful. Lighthearted tone but not farcical. Nifty CGI.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Angarano doesn’t cut it here. A little bit on the derivative side.
FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of martial arts action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This marks the first time that Asian martial arts legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li have appeared together in the same movie.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: A ton of extras including a blooper real, a retrospective on the careers of Li and Chan and how they almost worked together on several occasions, a look at the Chinese mythology that inspired the story, and a featurette on scouting the gorgeous locations within China. All of these are available both on the DVD and Blu-Ray editions of the film.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, M-Go
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $127.9M on a $55M production budget.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the West
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Pee-Wee’s Big Holiday

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Black Mass


You don't want to get on Jimmy Bulger's bad side.

You don’t want to get on Jimmy Bulger’s bad side.

(2015) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Johnny Depp, Joel Edgerton, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dakota Johnson, Kevin Bacon, Peter Sarsgaard, Jesse Plemons, Rory Cochrane, David Harbour, Adam Scott, Corey Stoll, Julianne Nicholson, W. Earl Brown, Bill Camp, Juno Temple, Mark Mahoney, Brad Carter, Scott Anderson, Lonnie Farmer, Mary Klug, Bill Haims, Erica McDermott. Directed by Scott Cooper

There are certain people that you meet who are corruptors. Any contact with them sends you spiraling down a rabbit hole of bad choices which once taken build upon each other until you are hopelessly lost in it. One day you wake up and realize that you are as corrupt as that which you associated with, without meaning to be.

In the 70s and 80s, James “Whitey” Bulger (Depp) – who incidentally hated that nickname and saying it to his face was a good way to get on his bad side, a place you surely didn’t want to be – was the kingpin of crime in Boston. Something of a folk hero in South Boston where he grew up and where most of the Winter Hill Gang, the crew which he ran, were from, he was known to be less flashy than other criminal bosses but no less vicious, although he could be kind and supportive to those in his neighborhood that he felt merited it, as well as faultlessly loyal to family and friends.

One of those friends was John Connolly (Edgerton) who went into the other side of the law as an FBI agent. A rising star in the Bureau, he was brought to Boston to take down Jerry Angiulo (Haims) and his organization which at the time was the undisputed criminal leaders of North Boston and who were making inroads into Southie which was Bulger territory. The two would form an alliance that in exchange for information about the Angiulo family, Connolly would essentially protect his childhood friend and allow him free reign in Boston, which would come back to haunt him.

In addition, Jimmy’s brother Billy (Cumberbatch) was a state senator and the most powerful politician in Boston at the time. While Jimmy took great care not to involve Billy in his affairs, Billy would later suffer by association to his notorious brother and be forced out of politics.

Jimmy would run roughshod over Boston for more than a decade until an incorruptible Federal Prosecutor, Jimmy’s own hubris and Connolly’s own lies and misinformation would lead to Jimmy going on the run for 16 years until he was eventually captured in 2011 (he has strongly denied that he was ever a government informant, incidentally).

Scott Cooper, most notable for his Oscar-winning film Crazy Heart, has elicited the most powerful performance Depp has given in years and one of his best ever. Barely recognizable in a protruding forehead prosthetic, receding white-blonde hairline and rotting teeth, Depp inhabits his role like it’s a comfortable apartment. Early in the film, he shows a compassionate Bulger – devoted son and father  and loyal friend – but as the film goes on, a vicious and paranoid streak begins to emerge as Bulger, prone to violence, begins to lose control. It’s a riveting performance, not unlike that of Al Pacino in the original Godfather although not quite to that level of accomplishment. Nonetheless, it’s wonderful to see an actor who has been on a bit of a cold streak of late return to form and deliver the kind of performance we know he’s capable of. Hopefully this will mean that Depp will have some really good roles in his near future.

The supporting cast is extremely accomplished. Best of the bunch is Edgerton who is blossoming into an extraordinary actor and building on his performance here and in The Gift is poised to ascend to Hollywood’s A-list. His John Connolly is a Southie street kid who has matured into a federal agent, but whose misguided loyalties and tragic misfire on crime fighting strategy brings the character to an inevitable fall. Cumberbatch, who has parlayed an ability to spot roles that grow his career into stardom, has little to do but when he gets the opportunity to shine makes the most of it. Plemons, Cochrane and Brown as Bulger associates Kevin Weeks, Steve Flemmi and John Martorano respectively are also outstanding as are Kevin Bacon, Corey Stoll and David Harbour as lawmen Charles McGuire, Fred Wyshak and John Morris respectively.

While the movie mainly takes place in the late 70s and early to mid 80s, Cooper doesn’t club you over the head with the era recreation. There is a timeless feel to Southie and it is in many ways much the same now as it was then. Cooper wisely chooses not to mess with that by throwing tons of bell-bottoms, mutton chops and floofy hair. Sure, there are period automobiles and signage as well as home furnishings but it is all rather low-key. Boston itself is given a kind of wintry patina that makes you feel a little bit on the cold side throughout, even when some of the action takes place on beautiful spring and summer days.

While I don’t think this is quite as good as some of the gangster epics of Scorsese and Coppola, it nevertheless merits consideration as a memorable addition to the elite films of the genre, which I think it will be considered as when years go by. Depp will have a good deal of stiff competition this year but his performance here will have to merit at least some Best Actor consideration for next year’s Oscars. It may lack quality women’s roles and might feel a little bit on the long side, but it is the best crime drama you’ll see this year.

REASONS TO GO: Depp’s best performance in years. Likely to become an essential gangster movie in years to come.
REASONS TO STAY: Maybe a bit too long and a little too masculine.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of bloody violence, quite a bit of profanity, some sexual references and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Many of the scenes depicting murders in the movie were filmed in the same locations where the actual murders took place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/26/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 75% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Goodfellas
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Cold Nights, Hot Salsa