For some, it’s bigger than King Kong versus Godzilla or Jesse James meeting Frankenstein’s daughter. It’s Jet Li and Jackie Chan on the big screen together, which is what Rob Minkoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom delivers. And while bringing these two longtime martial-arts film stars together for the first time is significant, the movie itself is too much of a practice in adequacy to make this more than an anecdote in the annals of film.
Minkoff’s direction is perfectly acceptable for this kind of pseudo-big-budget adventure film (though let’s be honest, the last thing anyone thinks of when it comes to nonstop kung-fu action is the director’s former films: The Lion King (1994), Stuart Little (1999) and The Haunted Mansion (2003)). The real problem with this film lies in John Fusco’s (Hidalgo) script, which scales the heights of predictability. Every single outcome and plot twist is telegraphed with the precision of Western Union.
What Fusco has come up with is a modern take on the traditional Chinese legend of the Monkey King (played in the film by Jet Li with blond hair, mutton chops and Mickey Rooney eyebrows). Fusco has thrown in a white American teenage male (Michael Angarano, The Final Season) as the protagonist for the sake of demographics. The story follows said teen, Jason, a South Boston kid who has an obsession with bootleg kung-fu flicks. In fact, The Forbidden Kingdom tries to fancy itself as an homage to classic kung fu, with its opening credit sequence featuring old ‘70s movie posters and references to Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers, but it’s all just tacked on instead of becoming an actual part of the movie, à la Quentin Tarentino’s Kill Bill films. Jason gets coerced by generic movie bullies to rob the local pawnshop, where in the midst of the fracas, he gets transported with a golden stick to an ancient, mystical kingdom. There, he joins up with a drunken martial-arts master named Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) and a mysterious monk (Li again) to learn kung fu through a series of montages. Jason is to return the staff to the Monkey King—who has been turned to stone, though it looks a lot more like stucco—which will, in turn, kick the tyrannical, eye-shadow-wearing Jade Warlord (Collin Chou, Jet Li’s Fearless) out of his place of power.
What this story leads to is a lot of martial-arts action, with Chan, Li and company fighting waves of indiscriminate henchmen. For the most part, these action scenes are filmed adequately, despite the occasional tendency for them to get muddled up with awkward camera angles and excessive cutting. Thankfully, the mid-film showdown between Li and Chan is shot with a very hands-off approach that allows the duo to do what they do best, while lending cohesiveness to the action. It’s the film’s most satisfying sequence.
And while none of this may sound like it adds up to a good time at the movies, the film is well paced and sharp looking. And carried by the charisma of Chan and—surprisingly—Li, it’s a pretty entertaining little movie while it’s on-screen. Just don’t go into it expecting too much, because it isn’t anything near memorable filmmaking. Rated PG-13 for sequences of martial-arts action and some violence.