Back in college, one of my roommates had a million dollar idea: The Fight Channel.
The Fight Channel is pretty much what it sounds like. Nothing but the fight scenes of movies all day, every day. No stories or setup, just constant ass-beatings. I wonder what's on the Fight Channel? you'd say, and then you'd flip over and hey! It's a fight.
It's a deceptively brilliant idea. A truly face-stomping fight can vault a movie from being kinda good to being infinitely rewatchable. Yes, the wire-fu bullet-time throwdowns are only one reason The Matrix is so great, but if you cut all the beatings and shootings together, followed it up with that fight where Jason Bourne clobbers the other assassin with a book, then switched to the Battle of Helm's Deep, who on earth wouldn't watch that channel at least a few minutes a day?
This isn't to suggest movies can get away with being nothing more than fight-delivery systems. But there's a place in my heart for any movie that comes through with the beatdowns. Example: The Forbidden Kingdom, which may have a somewhat tired story, but carries the day with a great sense of humor and an endless procession of high-energy brawls.
Michael Angarano loves kung fu movies, but that isn't much help when a gang of street toughs forces him to break into the pawn shop where he buys his bootlegs. In the scrum, the kindly shopkeeper is shot, but puts a golden bo staff into Angarano's hands -- which promptly teleports him to medieval China.
Angarano quickly falls afoul of the troops of the oppressive Jade Warlord, only to be rescued by drunken master Jackie Chan. Once they've got a moment to catch their breath, Chan proceeds to lay out a vast, sprawling prophecy: long ago, the Monkey King was turned into stone by the Jade Warlord, and only the return of his golden staff can restore him to life and the kingdom to order.
Then, Angarano dies forever. Wait, I mean he has to get the staff in the Monkey King's hands -- aided by Chan, the monk Jet Li, and avenging orphan Yifei Liu, and opposed at all times by the legions of troops of the Jade Warlord.
The Forbidden Kingdom is worth it for the fights alone. The kung fu isn't up to Chan and Li at their prime, but it is a load of fun, both in quality and quantity. Director Rob Minkoff has mostly done kids' movies to this point (The Lion King and Stuart Little among them), making it extra confusing that he comes off here like a poor man's Stephen Chow.
But a poor man's Stephen Chow is still pretty damn great: funny, kinetic, clearly a fan of action. Chan and Li help, no doubt, especially when the movie threatens to get too cutesy and kidsy. Those moments are rare, though; mostly, it's moving too fast to ever bog down.
As far as the plot goes, it's your basic "young loser learns to kick ass while saving everyone else's hides" story, only with a lot more people getting beaten up by staffs. Nothing too special. However, all of this is rather beside the point when the movie's tone is winning so hard. How is it possible to include a golden shower scene that not only doesn't disgrace everyone involved (including the audience), but also is actually hilarious? I still have no idea. Yet, somehow Minkoff pulls it off.
When it comes to film, a good mood is infectious. The Forbidden Kingdom isn't perfect. Its story is pat and its villains are nothing special. But it's so highly enjoyable those problems just fall away, overwhelmed by all the things it does right.