Title: The Forbidden Kingdom
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Director: Rob Minkoff
Screenwriters: John Fusco
Starring: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano
The Forbidden Kingdom works well as a love letter to martial arts adventures, but considerably less well as an adventure of its own. The movie has its charms, but its sloppiness isn’t always as endearing as director Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little, The Haunted Mansion) and screenwriter John Fusco (Hidalgo) seem to think. The incredible physical grace of its two stars is too often betrayed by the awkward, rote plotting. Minkoff and Fusco blur the line between homage and laziness.
Those who have been waiting for the first on-screen team-up of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and all the acrobatic kick-assery it implies, will not be disappointed. Unlike last year’s much-ballyhooed pairing of Li and Jason Statham in War, The Forbidden Kingdom actually features Li and Chan, you know, fighting — both each other and third parties. Aside from the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it possibility that they are no longer doing 100% of their own stunts, they don’t show a bit of their advanced age (Chan is 54 and Li is 44), and it’s a good thing, since there is no clear successor to replace them should they retire. (Some will doubtless suggest Tony Jaa, but while he has the moves, he hasn’t the personality.) In any event, if the prospect of the two screen legends duking it out is enough to make you giddy, you need read no further. Go see the movie.
For everyone else, it’s important to note that the movie isn’t really about Li and Chan’s characters. Instead, it’s about a South Boston teenager named Jason, played by Sky High‘s goofy-looking Michael Angarano, who gets transported back to ancient China by a magical golden staff he finds in a pawnshop. There, he discovers that he is the prophesied Seeker of the Staff, tasked with returning the thing to the legendary Monkey King and free the kingdom from the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). Chan plays a lone warrior whom Jason meets on his journey, and Li plays a monk who has devoted his life to, uh, seeking the Seeker. Together, they teach Jason — already obsessed with martial arts, though still getting beaten up by bullies — kung fu. “Kung fu,” by the way, is evidently a noun, as in “how good is your kung fu,” and also possibly a quantity, as in Chan’s incredulous “He has no kung fu! None!”
This is all very goofy, of course, which is just fine — that’s the genre. The problem is that it’s often goofy in boring, thoughtless ways. The most disappointing thing is the film’s obsession with immortals, with the result being a number of grandiose martial arts confrontations between people who can’t be hurt or killed. The only movie I’ve ever seen manage to make a fight between immortal characters exciting was Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and The Forbidden Kingdom doesn’t have anywhere near that film’s energy or technical savvy. There are two late-film “revelations” that I think are supposed to be plot twists, but are so incredibly obvious that the screenplay should just have put its cards on the table from the beginning. And the time-travel plotting is weirdly laborious, confusing and arbitrary — Fusco could have kept things simple and made the film livelier.
There’s some fun to be had here, as I say. The Forbidden Kingdom is more faithful to the spirit of The Karate Kid than the other movie that was recently branded a “Karate Kid rip-off.” It also drips affection for the Chinese martial arts flicks its protagonist do adores. As Jason, Michael Angarano does fine, making some use of stunt doubles but surprisingly not much. And there is a non-trivial contingent of moviegoers for whom seeing Jackie Chan and Jet Li on screen together is worth the price of a ticket. You know who you are. There’s no shame in it.