Forbidden Kingdom, The (United States, 2008)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

All fanboys have their dream teams. Forget Obama and Clinton. How about Superman and Spider-Man? (Comic book fans salivated when DC and Marvel combined in the '70s for this super-sized team-up.) Or Schwarzenegger and Stallone? (This was an often-rumored pairing in the late '80s and early '90s than never came to fruition.) Or Dumbledore and Gandalf? (It's advised to never say never, but in this caseā€¦) For kung fu fans, the coupling most yearned for (at least recently) has been Jackie Chan and Jet Li. The Forbidden Kingdom brings them together for the first time and, while both are a little past their respective "sell by" dates, there's enough physicality left to provide an approximation of what might have been ten or fifteen years ago. For martial arts action fans, The Forbidden Kingdom may be the best fantasy story since the genre was opened to a wider audience by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The Forbidden Kingdom opens not in some distant land but in the bedroom of Jason (Michael Angarano), a friendless high school boy who loves kung fu movies. His favorite place to go is a pawn shop in Chinatown, where he looks for used genre DVDs that he doesn't already own. One day, a local gang bullies him into forcing the owner of the pawn shop to open late for Jason. In the ensuing struggle, the owner is shot and Jason finds himself in possession of a talisman that transports him to a mystical version of ancient China where characters of myth and legend walk the Earth. It may not be Oz, but Jason sure isn't in Kansas, either.

He's almost immediately in trouble, since the staff he carries belongs to the Monkey King (Jet Li), who needs it back to defeat the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). Needless to say, the Jade Warlord doesn't want Jason to deliver the staff, so he sends out his soldiers to intercept it. Coming to Jason's rescue is Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), a mysterious drunk who seems anything but inebriated when he goes into battle. They are joined by the taciturn Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), who refers to herself in the third person, and the Silent Monk (Jet Li), whose life is devoted to delivering the talisman to the Monkey King. Thus begins a journey that ends in a battle royale.

When Jet Li and Jackie Chan trade blows, it's hard to determine how much is real, how much is the work of stunt doubles, and where wires and CGI are employed. Once upon a time, Chan did all his own stunts but he's in his mid-50s now and his body is no longer capable of enduring the punishment it once absorbed. Li is younger by about ten years but he has never been shy about using cinematic trickery to enhance his considerable skills. Credit director Rob Minkoff for filming the confrontation as if these two were once again in their primes. It's an energetic battle and it lasts long enough to savor. After they fight it out, Lu Yan and the Silent Monk join forces so the rest of their struggles are alongside one another.

The Forbidden Kingdom contains plenty of action, including scenes where our heroes must face a seemingly endless stream of soldiers that get punched, kicked, and tossed in all directions. Even the younger actors - Michael Angarano and Yifei Liu - get an opportunity to do some thumping and ass-kicking. In fact, this is very much a coming of age tale for Angarano's Jason, who leaves this world as a shy kid with no self-respect and returns as someone who has found inner strength and peace. Those who enjoyed the fantasy elements of films like Crouching Tiger will appreciate the setting here. The world that Jason visits in The Forbidden Kingdom is a fusion of Middle Earth and feudal China. There's magic and mayhem and CGI to go along with the kung fu.

The filmmakers recognize the preposterousness of the scenario so they avoid the pitfall of keeping the tone too serious. As a result, the movie feels more like one of Chan's pictures than Li's in the way it incorporates comedy, although Li proves to be a good sport and goes along for the ride. Several scenes are played specifically for laughs, including those where Jason undergoes his obligatory kung fu training. There's also a hilarious punch-line to the sequence in which Lu Yan attempts to summon rain. As The Forbidden Kingdom reaches its climax, Minkoff adopts a slightly more staid mood, but it's nothing that diminishes the overall entertainment value. The Forbidden Kingdom is for those who like plenty of kung fu action with an epic fantasy setting and a little humor thrown in. When all is said and done, the dream team combination of Chan and Li is just a nice bonus.

Forbidden Kingdom, The (United States, 2008)

Director: Rob Minkoff
Cast: Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Michael Angarano, Yifei Liu, Bingbing Li, Collin Chou
Screenplay: John Fusco
Cinematography: Peter Pau
Music: David Buckley
U.S. Distributor: Lionsgate
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2008-04-18
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence)
Subtitles: Some English subtitled Mandarin Chinese
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1