I went into The Forbidden Kingdom knowing nothing more than that it was number one last weekend, and that it stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li. To my surprise, given those stars, it turned out to be a martial arts fantasy. Who knew?
It’s not an import, however, and there’s nary a subtitle. It turns out it has a Western writer, director, and lead. The lead is Michael Angarano, ever typecast as the awkward teen. Here he plays an awkward teen who nonetheless gets to show off a ripped physique after the obligatory kung-fu training sequence.
The director is Rob Minkoff, perhaps best known for co-directing Disney’s The Lion King. He brings what is clearly a reverent fandom for the Shaw Bros. films (with a pinch of Bruce Lee) and manages to find a tone that is half-fun, half-fantastical.
The writer is John Fusco, writer of the animated film Spirit: Stallion of Cimmaron and of the ripping action yarn Hidalgo. Fusco brings the economy of classic screen storytelling to a fairly formulaic plot.
The plot is simple, but it sounds complex. Jason (Angarano), a kung-fu obsessed teen from South Boston, through the magic of a golden bow staff and a Wizard of Oz-like conceit, travels through time and the laws of physics to arrive in a land filled with kung-fu immortals. With the help of Lu Yan (Jackie Chan, riffing on his Drunken Master persona), Silent Monk (Jet Li) and Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), Jason must return the golden bow staff to its rightful owner, the Monkey King (Jet Li, in this role out-hamming the hammy Chan). That won’t be easy, since the Monkey King was imprisoned in stone by the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), and is kept under constant guard in a fortress high atop Five Elements Mountain. Complicating the hero’s journey further, there’s a whip-wielding witch with a whip of white hair named Ni Chang (Bingbing Li) who is operating on behalf of the Jade Warlord in order to get access to a potion of immortality he owns. After scattered skirmishes, all these characters have a massive brouhaha — which brings me to legendary fight choreographer Woo-ping Yuen.
Woo-ping has a number of tricks up his sleeve, but one of the greatest pleasures of the film is the virtuosity in which he rings changes on the simple weapon of the bow staff. Just about every move that could conceivably occur with a bow staff is performed through the course of the film, and since the staff is magical, there are a moves that aren’t physically possible peppered in as well.
While not on the ethereal level of a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or a Hero, Forbidden Kingdom is nonetheless a crowd-pleaser with a solid tale of courage, some mild comedic interludes and some ripping action set-pieces. Martial arts movie fans will appreciate that it marks the first collaboration between the legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li — the duo has several scenes that don’t disappoint. I also enjoyed the new-to-me talents of Yifei Liu, Collin Chou and Bingbing Li. (Michael Angarano I could’ve done without.) Certainly action movie haters should keep out of striking distance of this flick; but lovers of the modern dance known as kung-fu choreography have a must-see.