Directed by: Rob Minkoff
Starring: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Collin Chou, Yifei Liu
Rated: PG-13 for sequences of martial arts action and some violence.
Parental Notes: Parents of impressionable children should note that this film is packed with martial arts stunts. Children who are likely to attempt to imitate these stunts without the safety precautions used by the actors (harnesses, wires, etc) should probably be left at home.
“The Forbidden Kingdom” is made up almost entirely of homages, references, and cliches. There’s the young American hero, transported to a mystical land where he saves the world; the silent monk, master of the martial arts; the drunken beggar who is not what he seems; the magical weapons; the orphan girl out for revenge. None of it is new. But it doesn’t matter. The folks who go see this movie aren’t going because of the story elements. People are going because it’s the first movie to star both Jackie Chan and Jet Li. The promise of these two masters of martial arts cinema facing off on the big screen is alluring enough to trump even the dustiest storyline.
The hero of the tale is one Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano, “Snow Angels”). He’s something of an outcast, picked on by bullies. But he loves martial arts films. He’s friends with an old pawnbroker, Hop (Jackie Chan in the first of his two roles), who sells him DVDs on the cheap. One day Jason discovers an old, ornate staff in the back of the shop. Hop tells him it was left by someone many years ago, and is waiting to be reclaimed and returned to its rightful owner. Jason winds up being chosen to do just that when the staff transports him to the ancient China of his beloved movies.
Jason is rescued from soldiers by a drunken gung-fu master, Lu Yan (Chan, in his other role), who tells him about a prophecy that…
Wait, didn’t I already say the story doesn’t matter? What does matter is that Lu Yan is always drunk, so Chan can show off his drunken style of fighting from the successful “Drunken Master” series. Jet Li appears as both the Monkey King (rightful owner of the staff, imprisoned by the Jade Warlord when… nevermind) and the Silent Monk, whose fighting is precise and to the point, exactly the opposite of Yan’s. The two fight over everything, giving plenty of opportunities to enjoy both the actors’ immense skill as martial artists and entertainers, and their deadpan sense of humor.
Chan and Li are consummate masters of this sort of film, and watching them stroll through the script is like watching an old, familiar lion tamer go through a routine with an old, familiar lion. Both have the sharp awareness that comes from doing dangerous stunts for a living, but they also have the self-assurance in their roles that comes from decades of experience. It’s a pleasure watching them work. The fights are choreographed by Woo-ping Yuen, who also masterminded the battles in the “Kill Bill” and “Matrix” movies, so you can imagine the gorgeous, wire-work-filled, stylish duels that populate the film.
Angarano has little hope of being anything but overshadowed by the two greats, but he holds up his end well, being the butt of plenty of jokes and enduring the training montages necessary for the young hero to learn gung-fu so he can save the world.
There are references aplenty to fantastical and martial-arts films from both East and West, so fans of either should enjoy themselves quite a bit. This is an escapist movie, a slice of summer come early. If the idea of Chan and Li in the same film excites you, don’t miss it — but if you don’t care, and aren’t a kung-fu movie fan, “The Forbidden Kingdom” is not for you.