Thursday, May 01, 2008

Jackie Chan and Jet Li match up is a charming adventure

Jackie Chan and Jet Li are two of biggest international stars to come out of China and certainly the two with the most crossover success in America, so it was inevitable that they would eventually be teamed together. That match up has finally arrived in “The Forbidden Kingdom,” a goofy, but charming fantasy adventure.

Martial artists fans may be disappointed to discover that neither Chan nor Li is “Forbidden Kingdom’s” lead protagonist. The story instead centers on Jason (Michael Angarano, “Lords of Dogtown,” “Ski High”), a kung fu obsessed teen from Boston who enjoys venturing into China Town to buy bootleg kung fu films, but isn’t much of a fighter himself.

Bullies rough up Jason, but just before things turn potentially deadly a magical staff found in a pawn shop run by a kindly old man (nicely played by Chan) whisks him away to a fantastical version of ancient China.

The staff must be returned to its owner, the mischievous Monkey King (Li) who has been frozen in stone by an evil immortal ruler (Collin Chou). Luckily, Jason meets Lu Yan (Chan in his “Drunken Master” mode), Golden Sparrow (Yifei Lie) and Silent Monk (Li again) who guide and train him on his journey.

Naturally, before Chan and Li join forces, they must face off in a showdown of fists and kicks, lest the filmmakers want to deal with the wrath that would come down upon them from the loyal fans of both performers. Though Chan, at 53, and Li, at 44, are passed their primes and both have appeared in more cleverly choreographed fights, the set piece is still a must see for martial artists fans. It is a well paced and directed fight with energy and a sense of fun and humor.

Energy, fun and humor are ultimately the keys to the film’s success because, really, it is nothing more than a hodge-podge of ideas borrowed from movies as diverse as “The Wizard of Oz,” “The Neverending Story,” “The Karate Kid” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” It works though because it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Every moment can be predicted, but style goes a long way to overcoming familiarity. Yes, we get the obligatory training scenes and it goes without saying that when Jason returns home he’ll face the bullies with success the second time around. The characters are two-dimensional and yet they are so well played that you don’t mind.

Angarano and Lie have a surprisingly sweet and low-key love story, which while lacking depth, doesn’t feel forced. Similarly, Chan and Angarano have a nice mentor/student chemistry. Chan is an effortlessly likable screen presence, but his natural charisma has been wasted in most of his English language films. His work here is among his best in English.

Li, in the role of Silent Monk, is basically a stoic sidekick to Chan’s lovable drunken warrior, but as the Monkey King, Li gets to showcase his lighter side. Li usually plays dramatic, serious figures, so it is nice to see him reveal a knack for comedy as he gleefully bounds about the screen. It is a pleasant and welcomed treat.

The film also features strong female roles. In addition to Lie, Bingbing Li makes a dynamic villainess with long, flowing white hair that becomes its own weapon. Bingbing has a commanding and menacing screen presence. Both women are strikingly beautiful, but beyond that they are talented actresses who both give good performances in a language not their own. Not an easy feat.

The movie is aware it is pure formula and that its story is completely silly, but it embraces both of these with a light tone, a lot of heart and a playful wit. There’s even a bit of grace and beauty in the film. There are isolated moments when director Rob Minkoff recalls the gorgeous imagery that director Ying Xiong brought to the martial arts movies “Hero” and “House of Flying Daggers.” Minkoff manages to make a movie that could’ve come off as hokey and bland, one that is entertaining and endearing.

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