It’s hard to resist the lure of Jackie Chan and Jet Li in one movie, especially for martial arts fans. It’s a kung-fu maniac’s wet dream. I’m a big fan of a drunken-style smackdown or some hopping vampires, but I’m not sure I qualify as a maniac. But I guess this pairing is something like, on my personal scale of awesomeness, putting James Marsters from Buffy and Johnny Depp in a film, preferably doing a lot of kissing. While making pie.
But, lest I mislead anyone, Jackie Chan and Jet Li perform no tonsil hockey here. The Forbidden Kingdom is a fun family movie. It’s much more family-oriented than most of the recent flicks these actors have done separately, like Rush Hour or War, which tend to trade either in slightly off-color racial and sexual humor or in some serious, violent vengeance. And maybe in some airborne body parts.
This movie is very happily within its PG-13 rating, and could probably even go to a PG. It’s the heartwarming story of a young man, Jason Tripitikas (played by Michael Angarano, who may be familiar to some as Jack’s son from Will & Grace), who finds a very powerful staff in a pawn shop and flies through time and space into a legendary, fantastical China where he must save the country from a brutal warlord by returning that staff to its rightful owner, the Monkey King (played by Jet Li).
He’s joined in his quest by colorful characters: Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), the Silent Monk (Jet Li again), and Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu). Lu Yan is a reworking of Wong Fei-Hung from Drunken Master and The Legend of Drunken Master, and he’s a pleasure to watch as he weaves drunken stumbling and kung-fu kickassery into one very funny rug. Jet Li, who’s nine years younger than Chan’s 54, is always a pleasure; his moves are crisp, tight, and beautifully dangerous. And the young Yifei Liu, troubadour and kicker of butt, is lovely and graceful as Jason’s love interest and companion, if a bit wooden as an actress.
Along the way, the film gives us some nice, family-friendly messages, like “Vengeance always rebounds upon the one who seeks it” (I’m sure I’ve misquoted here, but the basic idea is “Vengeance is bad, Mmkay?”), which may lead to some quiet groans from any adult members of the audience. There are a few moments in this film that will leave adults unimpressed, generally schmaltzy cheese moments or after-school-special moralizing, but they won’t ruin the film for you.
[Spoiler] At one point, Jason gets sent forward, through time and space, into a confrontation with nasty bullies, which was where he was before all these staff-related shenanigans. Jason then proceeds to kick those bullies’ buttocks quite severely with his new kung-fu skillz. This is great fun for any of us who have ever been tormented by lumbering idiots with more muscle mass than sense. Given the nature of this website, it’s probably safe to say that’s all of us. Given the after-school moralizing mentioned above, Jason gives those bullies every chance to back out of the confrontation and never appears like he’s trying to find some extra tasty, extra crispy vengeance, but it’s still a fun, satisfying moment.
I recommend this film if you have younger members in your household or if you’re looking for some nice, light, thought-free summer fare. It’s inoffensive, charming, and full of good kung-fu fighting and wire action. Though this is no art film, the fights are gorgeously choreographed.
Chan and Li are both a lot of fun (and yes, they do fight each other at one point!) as they stumble or saunter, respectively, through their four collective roles (they each play two). Chan has better comedy chops, and Li’s fighting skills seem a bit crisper (probably due to Chan’s 54 years), but they’re both brilliant, overall.
And if there’s a bit of annoying moralizing, and if the boy who saves China is a dorky white nerd (which is more than a tad annoying; why can’t a Chinese kid save China?), we’ll chalk those faults up to Hollywood while we enjoy our Diet Pepsi and three packs of Goobers.