Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom

Posted By on Wed, Apr 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Jackie Chan and Jet Li are two of the world's biggest movie stars, to be sure. Here, the action legends share top billing (above the title, even), suggesting a grand summit of martial arts royalty, one that promises a heart-stopping, fuck-you-up duel. It's too bad, then, that the project whiffs of a family-friendly multiplex hack job.

Having said that, watching any Chan vs. Li spar is akin to a throwdown between Batman and Spider-Man; the pair's fist-to-fist moments in Forbidden are almost good enough to trump the nonsense that goes on around them.

The movie is, in fact, like an Asian Disneyland ride through four decades of chop-socky flicks; there are enough inside jokes and clever allusions to keep kung fu fanboys hopped up, and enough lazily connected elements and dangling plot points to keep the uninitiated amused but perplexed. And, because this is an American co-production, there's a dopey white teenager (the token audience surrogate!) played by the mildly doughy Michael Angarano (Snow Angels).

Angarano is Jason, a dweeby Boston kid whose Bruce Lee obsession is supported by the kindly elderly antiques dealer (Chan). Enter the bullies who make Jason a punching bag and devise a plan to rob the old man. Violence ensues, and, faster than you can say Last Action Hero, our boy grabs an enchanted golden staff and is transported into a fairy tale version of ancient China. There, he can set things right by returning the staff to its rightful owner. (Confused? We are too.) Anyway, Jason meets a trio of friends and protectors who'll help him defeat the evil Jade warlord and his men.

Chan spins off his famous Drunken Master role by playing the Daoist mythological hero Lu Yan, who uses wine (yes!) as fuel the way Popeye used spinach, while Li plays the white-robed "Silent Monk," a take on some of his previous screen roles. The female foil is Liu Yi Fei as "Golden Sparrow" the lute-wielding heroine of the 1960s Shaw Brothers classic Come Drink With Me. There's also the title character from Hong Kong classic Bride with White Hair: a villain with nasty Rapunzel-like locks. It doesn't take an advanced degree in Chinese pop culture, but fans of the genre will have a blast seeing all these figures invited to the same big party, messy though it is. Director Rob Minkoff lets his actors ham it up, and he knows when to get out of the way when the fists fly. And we see that Chan and Li — who are at least 10 years past their primes — can still deliver every kick with style.

Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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