According to Jackie Chan, he had talked with Jet Li about the two of them making a movie together many years ago when both were in Hong Kong, but the opportunity never presented itself. Fast-forward to 2007, when Hollywood comes calling. “The Forbidden Kingdom” is that long-awaited collaboration between two of Chinese cinema’s most famous players. And while Li and Chan are essentially playing derivatives of characters they’ve played in countless Chinese films, the fact that they are sharing the same screen somehow makes that side note a little easier to look past.
“The Forbidden Kingdom” is a Western product, first and foremost, so inevitably there must be a Caucasian face to lead us into the film’s Chinese world. Our guide is one Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano, “Sky High”), an American teenager obsessed with kung fu movies. After some neighborhood toughs force Jason to participate in the robbery of a local Chinese pawnshop, Jason grabs onto a fighting staff for help; unfortunately (or is that fortunately?) for him, the staff magically transports Jason to ancient China. How? Why? Good questions. My advice is to just go with it. This is, after all, a movie about time-traveling staffs and Monkey Kings who live in the clouds, so there you go.
Now trapped in ancient China, Jason quickly encounters the soldiers of the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), a tyrant who rules the countryside with an iron fist and the deadly skills of his white-haired she-devil enforcer, Ni Chang (Bingbing Li). Our American teen lucks into friendly assistance from a drunken beggar (although he calls himself a traveling scholar) name Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), who instantly recognizes the staff Jason is carrying as that of the Monkey King (Jet Li), a mythical being who defeated by the Jade Warlord hundreds of years ago and turned into stone. Only by returning the staff to the Monkey King can they free the immortal being and with his help, defeat the Jade Warlord once and for all.
Pretty ambitious stuff for a teen who just got his butt kicked repeatedly, to be sure, but Jason has a couple of trump cards to help him on his quest. There’s Lu Yan, who besides claiming to be a scholar at times, a beggar at others, also claims the title of an immortal warrior. Maybe. Along the way, they meet a Monk (also Jet Li), who at first steals the staff, before returning it in order to help free the Monkey King from his prison. (There is a reason the Monk looks a tad like the Monkey King, as it turns out). And finally, there’s Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), a young lass seeking vengeance against the Jade Warlord, who has the strange habit of talking about herself in the third person, but is deadly with throwing knives.
With a movie like “The Forbidden Kingdom”, the action is the thing. Director Rob Minkoff and writer John Fusco seem very aware of this, and have crammed the film with one long fight sequence after another. Of note are the Monkey King’s magic-fueled duels with the Jade Warlord, and of course, the first-ever onscreen fight between Jet Li and Jackie Chan, as their characters struggle over the staff at a temple. While both men have since past their prime, there are still shades of greatness that shows up during the battle, and it reminds you that something really, really special could have been created if they had gotten together much sooner. Really hardcore martial arts aficionados who have followed Chan and Li’s careers throughout their Hong Kong days may feel a bit let down by the action, but the occasional fan should be plenty entertained.
Movie studio Miramax certainly didn’t spare any expense to put forth an A-list product. The two stars aside, the film boasts other notable names in the crew, including “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’s” Peter Pau behind the camera and “The Matrix’s” Yuen Woo-Ping, easily the most celebrated action choreographer since action choreography became a notable element of action filmmaking. Woo-Ping seems to have been given carte blanche to put together a neverending series of fight scenes, since by the time Li and Chan have their first fight around the 35-minute mark, we’ve already gone through three good action sequences. Action fans looking for martial arts will have plenty to chew on here; just don’t expect anything overly innovative. Still, even when Woo-Ping is picking up a paycheck, it’s still better than what most Hollywood action movies can offer.
While the Li-Chan collaboration has gotten all the attention (and for good reason), there’s actually another minor off-camera storyline that deserves mentioning. The Jade Warlord is played by Collin Chou, who once famously subbed in for Jet Li in “The Matrix” films when Jet turned down the role of Seraph in order to star in a series of (lackluster) movies. It’s an ironic confluence of events that if not for Li, Chou would have never gotten his big break, and now the two men are fighting each other in the same movie. “Kingdom” also marks an interesting comparison of the two men’s careers — Li’s is slowing down, while Chou’s is on the rise, with a major role in “Kingdom”, and another one in the Wachowski Brothers’ upcoming “Ninja Assassin”.
“The Forbidden Kingdom” may not be the greatest movie ever made by Li or Chan, but at least we can say we finally saw them in the same movie together. Could it have been better? Sure, why not. Then again, so could most movies made by Hollywood. The point is that it finally got made, and although we could have done without the superfluous Western bookends, or the Western cast altogether, from a business point of view it makes sense. Of course, now that Li and Chan know there is an audience for their joint onscreen efforts, what’s to prevent them from doing another one in Hong Kong? Not a single thing, as far as I can tell.
Rob Minkoff (director) / John Fusco (screenplay)
CAST: Michael Angarano … Jason Tripitikas
Morgan Benoit … Lupo
Jackie Chan … Lu Yan
Collin Chou … Jade Warlord
Bingbing Li … Ni Chang
Jet Li … Monkey King / Lan Cai He
Yifei Liu … Golden Sparrow