The Forbidden Kingdom
One of the most attractive qualities about Jackie Chan is that unlike many other martial arts stars, he doesn't attempt to play younger than he is. He's now in his fifties, he can't do the incredible and delicious comedy routines that amazed us twenty years ago, so he just doesn't. Instead, he relies on small gestures, witty lines and a mobile face. In "The Forbidden Kingdom," where for the first time he's partnered with Jet Li, the script lets them both be themselves, or I should say lets them be their screen personas, which works very well.
"The Forbidden Kingdom" has a story that's one part "The Wizard of Oz" (our young American hero just wants to get back to Boston), one part "The Karate Kid" (he has to learn Kung Fu before the film ends), and one part "Crouching Tiger" (lots of sailing through the air on wires during the fights). But the fact is, I liked it because it has elements of traditional Chinese folk tales that keep it from going crazy. There's a monkey king, the one who in the folk tales always saves China from the bad guys, and a through plot line that reminds me of the famous "Water Margin" novel that was Mao's guide on the Long March.
The story begins with the boy named Jason (Michael Angarano) hanging around the elderly owner of a Chinese pawn shop (played by Chan) and spotting an ancient fighting staff; before he and we know what hit him he's in ancient China, where he must return the staff to its rightful owner, a godlike immortal (the Monkey King, played by Jet Li), who's been turned into stone by the Jade Warlord and won't be turned back until he gets whacked by the emperor's fighting staff. Naturally, the way to the Warlord's palace goes through the desert, and the mountains, and the river; in other words, it is a long commute. Fortunately, the young American encounters a drunken fighter (Chang again) and a monk (also Jet Li), and a beautiful young musician (Golden Sparrow), whose parents were killed by the Jade Warlord and now wants her vengeance.
The four of them begin their journey, in the course of which the two fighters must teach Jason the elements of Kung Fu, naturally, so that he can fight the Jade Warlord's soldiers in the climactic encounter. The Jade warlord also has a white-haired witch on his side. The climactic fight is a bit drawn out, but it still is beautifully choreographed, as are all the fights, by Yuen Wo Ping, the master who did "Crouching Tiger" among other films. "The Forbidden Kingdom," which came without too much hype, turns out to be a well-spent two hours.