18 April 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom

The Forbidden Kingdom

Why is it that when martial arts icons Jackie Chan and Jet Li finally team up on screen the hero is a nerdy white kid from South Boston? If that doesn't raise your eyebrows, check this out: The collaboration comes in a Hollywood production from the director of The Lion King, Stuart Little and The Haunted Mansion (Rob Minkoff), and the writer of Young Guns (John Fusco). The most surprising part? The Forbidden Kingdom is a lot of fun.

For fans of the two stars, the plot is almost inconsequential. But, for the record, here it is: Jason (Michael Angarano) finds himself in the middle of a robbery of the Chinatown pawnshop he frequents to buy bootleg copies of obscure kung fu movies. He flees the store with an old staff and suddenly finds himself in ancient China. The staff, it seems, belongs to the Monkey King, who centuries ago lost his duel with the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) and has been imprisoned in stone ever since. The staff has the power to free the Monkey King. The drunken kung fu master Lu Yan (Chan) explains this to Jason and soon they are on a quest to return the staff to its rightful owner. Along the way, they pick up the beautiful Golden Sparrow (Yifei Lui), whose family died at the Jade Warlord's hands, and the mysterious Silent Monk (Li). The deadly sorceress Ni Chang (Li Bing Bing) leads the warlord's lackeys against them.

Jackie Chan and Jet Li are true artists and watching them together is a real joy. The fight between Yan and the monk, though it probably occurs before the halfway point, is the movie's centerpiece. A lot of people have been waiting a long time to see these two legends go toe to toe on screen and they do not disappoint. Chan in particular, through his always creative use of props, is as gifted a physical performer as the movies have ever known. He also has a goofy charm that overmatches the more tight-lipped Li when they aren't fighting. Li's weaker grasp of English holds him back. Fusco, though, gives him a few good one-liners and the movie's single funniest moment.

Angarano, who was good in the underrated high school superhero adventure Sky High (2005), is an annoyance, not necessarily for anything he does, but because we'd much rather see Chan and Li than him. Minkoff recognizes this and, until the final battle, keeps him mostly in the background—or as a prop to be used by Chan—when the fighting starts. Minkoff also is wise by largely staying out of the way throughout the movie, ceding the spotlight to his skilled crew, especially fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Kill Bill), cinematographer Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and costume designer Shirley Chan.

A great epic probably would be more appropriate for what many likely see as a momentous occasion in film history, the pairing of two legendary figures. The Forbidden Kingdom certainly is not that and it never tries to be. There is time for that later. For now, Chan and Li are just having fun together. Fortunately, it's fun for us, too.

(Rated PG-13 for sequences of martial arts action and some violence. 113 minutes.)

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