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Forbidden Kingdom, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/18/08 00:00:00

"Kung fu, do what you do to me..."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

On the one hand, “The Forbidden Kingdom” is a rough, occasionally graceless film, overly Americanized, about what you’d expect when you ask the guy who directed “The Haunted Mansion” to make a martial arts epic. On the other hand, “The Forbidden Kingdom” is a movie that has Jackie Chan and Jet Li kicking each other. And that is why it is awesome.

The film is the first to pair both superstars, two action heroes synonymous with the genre. That the pairing comes late in both men’s careers does not matter; granted, it would have been interesting to see them match up at the peak of their physical skills, but they’re still very much in top form, delivering the very sort of rumble that will make fans wet themselves with glee.

Indeed, the whole movie plays as a tribute to martial arts cinema, namechecking some of the genre’s greatest works. Michael Angarano (“Sky High”) plays Jason, a teen outcast growing up in modern-day Boston; he feeds his addiction to kung fu flicks by visiting a Chinatown pawn shop run by Old Hop (Chan). He knows all the stars, all the moves. (His vintage poster-laden bedroom wall also serves as the backdrop for an inventive title sequence that runs down the genre’s key imagery.)

Hop’s a great guy, and apparently Jason’s only friend. The old man spins a tale about the Monkey King (Li), a mischievous immortal who was tricked by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou); upon realizing the deceit, the Monkey King sent his magical staff into another world before the immortal became entombed in a stone statue, where he remains five hundred years later. Hop owns that very staff, or so he winkingly claims, adding that if it were ever to be returned, the Monkey King would spring back to life and possibly defeat the Jade Warlord, himself an immortal, for good.

It’s a fairy tale that mixes elements from several Chinese myths, both ancient and modern. When Jason wakes up to find himself mysteriously stranded in the Forbidden Kingdom, face to face with a drunken immortal named Lu Yan (Chan again), the movie then blends in legends of a Western nature. Here, Jason becomes a Luke Skywalker/Frodo Baggins type, a young, untrained boy who falls unwillingly into a mission that will save the world - and make him a man.

(The script even borrows heavily from “The Wizard of Oz.” Like that classic, “The Forbidden Kingdom” offers parallels between the dreary real world and the colorful fantasy land. Jason’s adventures allow him to do the very sort of heroics he couldn’t back home, which possibly fuels his desire to save a life late in the film - he’s rescuing the analogue of someone he couldn’t rescue in his own time. It’s a clever undertone in a genre not known for subtext.)

As Jason and Lu Yan continue their journey, they meet an orphan named Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu, a butt-kickin’ beauty who out-Ziyi Zhangs Ziyi Zhang), who’s revenge on the Jade Warlord, and the Silent Monk (Li again), a devoted follower of the Monkey King who’s spent half his life looking for the magical spear. The ragtag foursome travel the dangerous roads leading to the Jade Emperor’s lair, while Lu Yan and the Silent Monk work together (if not in harmony) to train Jason, who knows everything about movie version of kung fu, but none of the real kind.

It’s a wonderful collision of eastern and western mythologies - the hero’s journey, the wise teacher, the supernatural warriors, etc. - and the screenplay (by John Fusco, his first since the grossly underrated “Hidalgo”) relishes the chance to highlight the most thrilling aspects of various cultures’ legends. This is a script that understands how these stories work, and (more importantly) why. And as a pure fairy tale, “The Forbidden Kingdom” is a rousing adventure, smart and funny and thrilling, often all at once.

It doesn’t all come off perfectly. The main problems are in the opening scenes, the present-day Boston stuff. Here, Rob Minkoff (who also helmed the lovely “Stuart Little” films, so we shouldn’t hold “Haunted Mansion” too much against him) shows why he’s an unlikely candidate for this project. These scenes are too clunky; while the broad approach fits well with the old-school kung-fu throwback bits, it just comes across as cheesy here. Meanwhile, the villains, a gang of neighborhood toughs, come across about as threatening and as believable as the thugs from “Rumble in the Bronx,” which is to say, not really at all.

Once the story moves to ancient China, things run more smoothly. Chan and Li (both alternate between iffy English and comfortable Mandarin) are now squarely in their element, and the action soars under the leadership of veteran action director Yuen Woo-ping. It’s tempting to credit Yuen for the success of the film; astute viewers will easily spot his influence in the scenes that work, and Minkoff’s more American stylings in the scenes that don’t. That said, it’s probably a very unfair explanation of events, as the movie does indeed work very well in most of its later non-action scenes.

Then again, Yuen deserves a loud cheer for what he’s done here. The fight sequences are amazing, offering the sort of jaw-dropping stunts (often aided by CG and wires) fans expect from such a movie. The final fight scene is a marvel, as are smaller sequences sprinkled throughout the journey, but the real draw here is the Chan-Li showdown. Both offer up a physical celebration of their glory days (the sight of Chan reviving his old “drunken fist” routine is worth the price of admission alone), and the two engage in a lengthy brawl designed specifically to make the most of this one-time-only pairing. Quite simply: wow.

Then again again, Minkoff’s experience with family-friendly fare helps keep things light during the darker moments. More importantly, he creates some terrific moments in between the action, thanks largely to the chemistry between the two stars, who work incredibly well together, and to the charisma of Angarano, who carries himself well amid two screen giants. It’s all the makings for a rousing, cross-cultural popcorn adventure.

Plus, Jackie Chan and Jet Li kick each other. Awesome.

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