Written By:John Fusco, Ch’eng-En Wu
A amartial arts epic with hints of Tolkien in which a Caucasian hero teams with Jackie Chan and Jet Li to save a kingdom, win the affection of a beauty, and gain the power to kick a homicidal bully’s ass, The Forbidden Kingdom plays out like the wet dream of kung-fu fanboy nation. Except, however, that even rabid Hong Kong cineastes will likely be underwhelmed by director Rob Minkoff’s family-friendly fusion of The Lord of the Rings, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and The Karate Kid. Defining this fantasy saga via movie references seems apt considering the film itself flaunts its celluloid lineage, with Chan’s role as a sloshed martial arts master (a nod to Drunken Master) merely one of many allusions to the type of kung-fu and Wuxia classics whose posters adorn Boston high-schooler Jason’s (Michael Angarano) bedroom wall.
Through his relationship with an aged pawnshop owner (Chan), Jason is transported back to ancient China by a legendary bowstaff that the teen must return to its rightful owner, an immortal Monkey King (Li) imprisoned in stone by the evil Jade War Lord (Collin Chou). He’s aided in his quest by the imbibing Lu Yan (Chan again), the vengeful Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), and a mysterious monk (Li again), who do most of the heavy fighting while Jason ducks, runs, and acts freaked out until he’s trained in the art of combat. That China’s savior is a white American proves far less problematic than the fact that the white American in question is so unpleasantly goofy, Angarano giving the typically hammy Chan a run for his money in the exaggerated bug-eyes department.
Forbidden Kingdom serves up convoluted mythology with mild indifference, ostensibly because it recognizes that its sole objective is orchestrating marathon skirmishes featuring its stars. In that department, the film delivers, with the Hong Kong icons engaging in an introductory face-off that, despite choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping’s increasingly hackneyed wirework techniques, has a dynamism aided by Minkoff’s clean, robust staging. Chan and Li’s maiden onscreen battle is appropriately titanic, but their long-awaited collaboration can’t possibly be dubbed a success when it also, to its everlasting shame, features a scene in which one of them pees in the other’s face.