Once in awhile a movie comes along that slips below the radar to deliver an unexpected delight. Such is the case with The Forbidden Kingdom, a bizarre Asian-American film that would have been lauded a few years ago but is presently relegated to discount theater status.
The film's top billing is co-given to Jackie Chan and Jet Li, though neither of them are the main characters. The story's hero is in fact played by an American, Michael Angarano, who some moviegoers will remember from his other lead in Disney's Sky High a few years back. Angarano plays Jason, a Kung-Fu movie obsessed teenager who frequents a mysterious pawn shop owned by the mysterious old man "Hop." Hop is in the possession of a mysterious Chinese bow staff that he says has been in his shop since his father opened it one hundred years before, waiting for its mysterious rightful owner to collect it (so mysterious). Later, when the local bullies realize that Jason and Hop are friends, they force Jason to betray that friendship so that they can rob the pawn shop. When Hop tries to defend his store the gun-brandishing leader of the gang seemingly dispatches him, his last words to Jason inciting the boy to return the staff to its rightful place. With the staff in hand, Jason runs from the gang only to be dragged off of a rooftop by a strange force. When he awakens, he finds himself in a very feudal-looking ancient China, where he is saved and befriended by Lu Yan (a dread-locked Jackie Chan), who is essentially the same character from The Drunken Master. Along the way they meet the orphan-turned-assassin Sparrow (Yifei Liu) and the formidable Monk (Jet Li), and the masters train Jason in the ways of the Kung-Fu he loves so dear so that the troupe can take on the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou - more popularly known as Seraph in the Matrix movies) and his hired assassin, the sexy and deadly Ni Chang (played by Bingbing Li - c'mon, say it! Bingbing!).
While the plot is essentially a straightforward coming-of-age story, it brings to mind a sort of Alice in Wonderland exclusively for boys. The real draw for moviegoers is the Marvel Comic-esque (that is to say, two well-meaning heroes who come to blows over a simple misunderstanding seconds after meeting each other) fight between Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Audiences have been waiting years for these aging superstars of Chinese Opera to come to blows, and they will not be disappointed. The fight between the two is extremely long by movie standards, but never seems to get old due to the skills of two seasoned wire-work professionals. This Western production of an Eastern genre manages to capture an epic feel on a limited budget, and without all of the pithy pompousness and tragedy Kung Fu epics seem to require ever since Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon was produced. It is also a relief to finally see Jet Li play the classical Chinese Sun Wukong (the Monkey King) as one of the few actors who could do the part justice even with a truncated and incorrect story. Michael Angarano provides both the straight man and the audience's portal into the strange world of Kung-Fu beautifully, and it would be a shame if he didn't get bigger roles in the future. On top of everything else, it is refreshing to see a film that has literally no product placement in it whatsoever.
The movie is not without is problems, though. While it is rated PG-13, it is strictly for the violence - which can get intense, and parents with young children should be cautioned - though it is bloodless enough that the more hardcore moviegoer may laugh at the lack of brutality. The story is about as cut-and-dry as it gets, and even though it is nice to see a martial arts film with a happy ending, it does seem to be a little bit compulsory even by Hollywood's standards. There are some exceptionally cheesy and predictable parts in the plot, offset by some very tragic back-story, which gives the audience a rather confused feeling.
Overall, this film is recommended. If you've waited to see J.C. and J.L. in an on-screen bout, this is your film. If not, you'll probably have a good time anyway.