Jackie Chan, Jet Li Enter ‘The Forbidden Kingdom’

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Two masters share the screen for the first time

To martial arts film fans, the pairing of Jackie Chan and Jet Li is a dream come true — a highly anticipated and rare chance to see two masters share the screen. Think Al Pacino and Robert De Niro going head-to-head in Heat (and the upcoming Righteous Kill), or Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift in The Young Lions.

The Forbidden Kingdom is the first screen meeting of two legends, something fans have been clamoring to see for almost three decades.  It can’t be easy for any film to live up to such expectations, and, to the filmmakers’ credit, they simply try to make a movie imbued with fun and joy.

Writer John Fusco’s (Young Guns) script is rooted in Chinese mythology — most specifically around the legend of the Monkey King (played by Jet Li) — but intended for an American audience.  To that end, the protagonist is Boston teen Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) who, for reasons unexplained, is the chosen one destined to return a magical staff to the Monkey King, who has been imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou).

Jason is transported to ancient China, where he sets off on his quest with the help of the wine-loving Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), the Silent Monk (Jet Li) and the beautiful Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei).

Director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) and Fusco clearly have a love for the genre.  Martial arts enthusiasts will delight in the numerous references peppered throughout, including Chan’s nod to his Drunken Master days and Li Bing Bing’s deadly White-Haired Demoness, born straight out of vintage kung fu movies and wuxia novels.

Yes, this is another story about a Caucasian male destined to enter an Asian world to save the day, complete with the lovely Asian female love interest. But, for the most part, the stereotypical land mines are kept to a minimum because the Asian characters are by far the most charismatic presences on screen.

Regarding the fight sequences, action choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen (The Matrix) does his usual stellar work. The fights employ a mix of styles and are impressive, but bloodless enough to make the film acceptable to children and adults alike.

Of course, the audience is mainly there to see Chan and Li duke it out against each other.  I’ve heard some grumbling that the two stars are too old to be at their best and that this pairing should have come 15 years ago.  Chan and Li may be past their prime, but the criticism is unfair.  When the big moment comes about halfway through the film and the two battle inside an ancient temple, it’s still impressive.  If there are any letdowns, it is the fact that, by now, we’ve seen what these two can do so many times that it no longer has the same wondrous effect.  But had this scene played in exactly the same way with two unknown newcomers, we’d be proclaiming them the future of martial arts films.

The Forbidden Kingdom is a film that very much wants to be liked and wants to entertain every person in the audience. You’re likely to enjoy the film as it plays but may immediately forget about it when you leave the theater. The Forbidden Kingdom is the cinematic equivalent of a Big Mac, and if you allow yourself to enjoy it for what it is, you just may have a nice night at the movies.

The Forbidden Kingdom opens on April 18.

Philip W. Chung is a writer and co-artistic director of Lodestone Theatre Ensemble.   Lodestone’s next production of Nic Cha Kim’s Trapezoid runs from April 19 to May 25 in L.A.  For more info: lodestonetheatre.org.

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