The Forbidden Kingdom

31Fans of Jackie Chan and Jet Li have been waiting for years to see them together in a movie. Well, here it is, and it turns out to be pretty much a kiddie movie. Weep for the disgruntled fanboys. For kids, though, The Forbidden Kingdom is a fun gateway drug to such classics as Drunken Master and Once Upon a Time in China, once they’re a little older. The movie concerns an American teenager named Jason (Michael Angarano) who worships at the altar of Hong Kong cinema. The movie that follows could be Jason’s delirious wish-fulfillment dream: he gets to hang out with Jackie Chan and Jet Li and fight alongside them. What’s odd is that Jason, who knows his Shaw Brothers from his Ronny Yu, never just stops and says “Hey, you’re Jackie Chan! And you’re Jet Li — wait, didn’t you say you were done with martial-arts movies?”

Jason gets pulled into ancient China, where he must return a magic staff to its rightful owner — the Monkey King (Li), who has been encased in stone for 500 years. Helping Jason is an immortal (Chan) whose life-maintaining elixir happens to be booze, and a monk (Li again) who has made it his life’s mission to restore the Monkey King to life. It may seem derivative, but that’s because John Fusco’s script is glancingly based on Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century classic Journey to the West, which has found its way into various films and TV shows over the decades, from a Shaw Brothers series to Dragon Ball. The movie is a grab bag of swipes from a lot of the videos on Jason’s shelves, including The Bride with White Hair, echoed here by a character called Ni Chang the White-Haired Demoness (Li Bing Bing).

Poetry is in short supply here. The great Woo-ping Yuen (also on board as an executive producer) contributes his usual lighter-than-air fight choreography; while still enjoyable, it’s become a bit familiar by now, even a bit rote. The generously concussive duet between Chan and Li dazzles, but perhaps more because it’s them — Ali vs. Foreman, King Kong vs. Godzilla — than because of anything they do. (I found myself more charmed by a shot of the two masters sharing a hearty laugh at the visiting white boy’s expense.) This is fantasy, of course, so a lot of the wire work is soundly divorced from reality, even more so when CGI enters the picture — the villain of the piece, the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), is able to zap opponents with his hands, and I found myself thinking that this sort of thing was somehow more entertaining in the ’70s, when the zaps were spindly bits of lightning scratched onto the celluloid.

For all that, The Forbidden Kingdom is good low-calorie fun. Neither Chan nor Li takes the proceedings terribly seriously, and it’s nice to see the usually dour Li cracking a smile or, as the Monkey King, leaping about cackling. The movie often has the charisma of a project undertaken by its leads because they wanted to make something their kids could see (though Chan has been in his share of family-friendly swill in recent years). Michael Angarano, who was almost the young Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace, is unnecessary but not too annoying; Jason gets humbled for most of his screen time anyway, though the modern-day framing sequence, with Jason threatened by a gang of Southie punks and Chan in froggy old-man latex as a Chinatown shop owner, feels drab and mundane. (You might wonder why Jason wants to go back home.) This may not be the Chan-Li movie everyone was salivating for, but it’s a good diversion — neither as great nor as bad as it could’ve been.

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