Is it possible to recommend a movie based on a single scene alone? If it's The Forbidden Kingdom, the answer is an obvious "Yes." This long-awaited pairing of Hong Kong action giants Jackie Chan
and Jet Li
is a scattershot combination of Eastern promise
and Western gobbledygook. It's so '80s Hollywood it should have standing reservations at Morton's. Yet thanks to a wicked wire-fu confrontation between the aging action icons and some additional high flying fisticuffs, we gladly suffer the uneven casting and mangled mythology.
In this made-up movie legend, an immortal known as the Monkey King (Li), is turned to stone by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou
). Without his magic staff, the ruler is destined to remain forever frozen. A prophecy states that every 500 years someone is sent on a quest to return the prized pole. This time around, it's South Boston's own rabid martial arts fanboy Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano
). While helping a group of thugs rob an old Chinese shop owner (Jackie Chan), he is whisked back to ancient times. There, he teams up with drunken Master Lu Yan (Chan again) and the Silent Monk (Li again) to give the king his rod. They are also helped by the Golden Sparrow (Yiefi Liu
) and tracked by the wicked witch Ni Chang (Bingbing Li
). Article continues below
Let's end the suspense, shall we, and get to the part where Chan and Li strap it on. Like all quality professionals, they take the insane fight choreography from Crouching Tiger/Matrix trilogy's Woo-ping Yuen and transform it into an athletic ballet. Their big battle, in essence a standoff between grace (Chan) and gravitas (Li) is a sight to behold. It's everything you'd ever want in a one-on-one face-off -- close calls, unbelievable acrobatics, carefully constructed (and landed) combinations, and a sense that both men are enjoying the hell out of the experience. If all of The Forbidden Kingdom had been this electrifying, we'd have a Western made modern classic on our hands.
But director Rob Minkoff
fumbles the very foundation of the narrative, providing a young male lead that is dull, ineffectual, and completely out of sync with his Hong Kong superstars. Angarano may make some tween hearts flutter, but his pin-up power can't overshadow an inherent weakness in the lead role. He seems out of place, ported over from a chop-socky version of The Goonies - or worse, an unnecessary update of that tired 3 Ninjas franchise from the '90s. Minkoff has his own issues, too. While the Stuart Little films may have earned him some cred, helming the Eddie Murphy offal known as The Haunted Mansion has obviously affected his stylistic designs. The movie looks flat, the CGI backdrops no more convincing than a trip to Tatooine on a Commodore 64.
Luckily, the Eastern element of the production saves enough filmic face to keep us interested. Bingbing Li is enigmatic as the white haired demon, though she's given little to do beyond beat people up, and Chou is equally malevolent as the magic-wielding Warlord. Had Minkoff stayed centered in true Chinese tradition, had he built his movie out of the same good vs. evil, honor vs. duty dynamic that fueled studios like Shaw Brothers for eons, The Forbidden Kingdom would have been much more than a mere meeting of two kung fu kings. As it stands, we have to suffer through 90 minutes of mediocrity to get a half hour of fabulous flying fists. The clash between these motion picture pioneers is more than worth the price of admission. Too bad the rest of the movie is a waste.