The Forbidden Kingdom (PG-13) ★★½

Review Date: April 18th, 2008

Is this first pairing of marital arts masters Jackie Chan and Jet Li worth the long wait? Yes, but only when their fists of fury are flying. And, thankfully, that happens quite frequently.


How refreshing that Chan's gone public in dismissing John Fusco's script to this fantasy epic as unimpressive. He's right. But what difference does it make when all we want to see is Chan and Li kicking butt? And The Forbidden Kingdom offers plenty of opportunities for them to do just that. So what whimsy excuse has Fusco and director Rob Minkoff come up with to unite Chan and Li? Well, they have essentially fused the Chinese literary classic Journey to the West--which features the mythical hero Monkey King--with A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Only this time, Mark Twain's "curious stranger" happens to be a wimpy kid (Michael Angarano) who's whisked back in time to ancient China with the aid of the magical staff belonging to the Monkey King (Li). For no other reason than to pander to American audiences, Jason's charged with the task of freeing a trapped-in-stone Monkey King from the grasp of the powerful Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). Jason may possess a Quentin Tarantino-esque knowledge of kung fu movies, but he's no Bruce Lee. Enter Lu Yan (Chan) and the Silent Monk (Li, again), two mighty warriors who not only join Jason's quest to defeat the Jade Warlord but also make like Mr. Miyagi to train him in the way of the martial arts.


Chan rehashes his Drunken Master shtick, so there's much humor to be found in his wine-guzzling immortal's efforts to vanquish his foes while fighting under the influence. And, as usual, Chan makes inventive use of the props that he gets in his hands. He even shows off his aerobatic moves while caked in old-geezer makeup as the owner of the store where Jason finds the staff. As the Monkey King and the Silent Monk, Li throws more punches than he utters lines of dialogue. Li, though, has twice as much fun as Chan with his two different roles. The Silent Monk lives up to his name, but when the action starts, the wushu-trained Li comes across as stronger, swifter and nimbler than the older Chan. Looking very much like Curious George with his pulled-back hair and lengthy sideburns, Jet Li reveals a charming playfulness as the giggling Monkey King that we've not seen in his Hollywood-produced bloodbaths. Angarano, though, is bland and boring. He's Shia LaBeouf without the personality, depth or comic timing. Yifei Liu, as the vengeful Golden Sparrow, proves to be as much a lethal weapon as her male counterparts. Decked out like Halle Berry in X-Men, Li Bingbing is delightfully malicious as Golden Sparrow's nemesis Ni Chang. She also exudes more menace than the oily Chou.


So it remains unsettled as to who would emerge victorious if Jackie Chan and Jet Li duked it out for bragging rights (my money's on Li because his characters possess a killer instinct that Chan's nice guys lack). But director Rob Minkoff--responsible for The Lion King and Stuart Little--knows what's important when it comes to The Forbidden Kingdom . It's all about the big brawls, baby. With the invaluable assistance of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon marital arts choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen, Minkoff ensures that Chan and Li are always busy doing what they do best. He doesn't reign in Chan and Li--whose easy rapport is evident from the beginning--or cut short the furiously executed skirmishes that boast everything from stick fighting to wire fu. Then again, that only appropriate considering The Forbidden Kingdom sets itself up from its funky opening credits as a homage to Hong Kong action cinema. Still, The Forbidden Kingdom does grind to a halt whenever Chan and Li take a breather. The story's tired and predictable, the dialogue's grating, and the comedy's forced--though it's quite amusing and cathartic to watch Chan and Li knock around the ineffectual Jason. For all its flaws, though, The Forbidden Kingdom offers the priceless spectacle of Chan and Li kung fu fighting. And those cats really are as fast as lightning.

Bottom Line rated this film 2 1/2 stars.