The Forbidden Kingdom
Rated PG-13, 113 min. Directed by Rob Minkoff. Starring Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Liu Yifei, Collin Chou, Morgan Benoit, Li Bingbing.
If you've shelled out dough for the last half-dozen films by the grinny, battered Chan – Hong Kong's kung-fu ambassador-in-perpetuity – then you can be forgiven for thinking that this, too, is yet another silly, flailing mishmash of comic battery. It's more than that, thankfully, and with a sure, swift kick to the mental palate, it dislodges not only the vile taste of Brett Ratner's crappily Americanized Rush Hour trilogy but also Chan's own lackluster outings of late (The Medallion, The Tuxedo, The Myth). Pairing Chan with Li, the actor who once looked to be his heir apparent, is an undeniably smart casting move. Although nine years Chan's junior, Li's own output of late has been daringly rote (except for Hero and the UK version of Danny the Dog, which was released stateside as Unleashed). Pairing these two martial-arts legends in a story that is essentially one long homage to the great Shaw Brothers films of yore allows The Forbidden Kingdom plenty of leeway for comic moments (courtesy, as always, of Chan) and some seriously kickass fight scenes (choreographed by Kill Bill's Yuen Woo-ping). There's also plenty of the traditional wirework and not nearly as much CGI (which almost always feels like a cheat in the fantastical world of traditional Hong Kong knockabouts) as you'd expect. The plot is negligible, but that's fine since it's really only a way to get from one set-piece to another. Angarano plays Jason, a bullied teen who miraculously finds himself back in ancient China via a magic staff, which he must restore to its rightful owner before he can return to his own time and wipe the floor with his 20th century tormentors. Yawn. Li, playing both a grave monk and the outlandishly entertaining Monkey King, and Chan, riffing on his own character of the Drunken Master of blotto-fu, play dueling Mr. Miyagis to Angarano's Kung-fu Kid (with a nod to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon in the willowy form of Liu), and the results are respectable, if not classic. With its many, many references to Hong Kong's cinematic past (Zu: Warrior of the Magic Mountain, the Drunken Master films, Li's Swordsman II, The Bride With White Hair), The Forbidden Kingdom comes off as an introductory course in genre ground rules for younger audiences whose only contact with Hong Kong bruisery comes from video games or, worse, Brett Ratner. And for longtime fans, it's no Police Story II, but then neither was the straight-to-DVD effort New Police Story.
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