The task for Forbidden Kingdom director Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little) and screenwriter John Fusco was to make a movie to satisfy the martial arts movie aficionado - the type with shelves groaning with DVD titles written in Chinese, someone who knows the various alternate English titles under which movies were released (not that I'm copping to that, mind you) - while also providing entrée to the newbies. On both counts, they succeed pretty well. With undisputed master Yuen Wo-Ping (a/k/a Woo-Ping Yuen) choreographing the kung fu, and the formidable talents of Li and Chan together at last, The Forbidden Kingdom provides an entertaining and lively mix of kung fu styles and techniques.
The story starts in latter-day South Boston, where Jason (Michael Angarano) is a kid obsessed with martial arts movies and picked on by a gang of hooligans. He gets his DVD kicks from a dusty old Chinatown pawnshop owned by Old Hop (Jackie Chan). Old Hop is in possession of a magical golden staff, which - via means poorly understood by contemporary physicists - transports Jason through time and space to the Middle Kingdom, a place that resembles ancient China. There, Jason is the Seeker, who must return the staff to its rightful owner, who happens to be the Monkey King (Jet Li, who amuses with a weird monkey-man impersonation), a popular, mischievous, godlike figure from Chinese mythology. The Monkey King has been imprisoned for centuries by the evil Jade Warrior (Collin Chou). But what matters is this: Everybody was kung fu fighting.
Jason meets three warriors who help him with his task. Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) is a wine-swigging drunk who specializes in (what else?) the drunken kung fu style. Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei) is a musician bent on avenging her parents, who were killed by Jade Warrior. The Silent Monk (Jet Li) isn't really silent once he warms up. He has devoted his life to finding the staff. The important thing is that Lu Yan and Silent Monk, owing to a natural misunderstanding regarding the staff, fight each other. Anyone who has ever speculated as to the winner of a Jet Li/Jackie Chan battle (you know who you are) will find the results not entirely surprising.
The Jet Li/Jackie Chan movie matchup could have been unimaginably awesome, really awful or somewhere in between. The Forbidden Kingdom is somewhere in between; and if it is not exactly mind-bendingly awesome, it is not at all awful. The very different styles of the two stars - Chan is Mr. Chopsocky slapstick, Li has generally been more somber and serious - blend well here, with the contrasts providing character and humor.
In recent years, martial arts movies have been touched by the art-house angels, with movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers taking the genre seriously and injecting them with a measure of artistic integrity and aesthetic gravitas. That's not The Forbidden Kingdom, which aims above all else to be popular entertainment - although it also takes the genre seriously enough and maintains a high level of technical achievement, with good special effects, lavish set design (the movie was filmed in China) and peerless kung fu fighting.
The Monk, the Drunk, the Sparrow and the Southie head for the mountain lair of the Jade Warrior, whose abuse of blue eyeshadow is out of control. Much fighting ensues. Many Shaolin monks are involved, as is a witch (Li Bing Bing) who uses her long white hair as a weapon. But first, Jason must be trained in kung fu using the age-old pedagogic techniques of seemingly non-kung fu-related forced labor and physical torture. This is, as we all know, how all the great kung fu masters were trained, and The Forbidden Kingdom does not depart from the tradition - although since Jason has dueling masters, he gets twice the torture.
Embracing tradition is one of the strengths of The Forbidden Kingdom, which drops martial arts movie references like breadcrumbs, and combines folklore, mysticism, mumbo-jumbo and lots of imaginative kicking, punching, leaping, flying, acrobatics and wire fu in the service of an excessively complicated plot. That's how it's always been done, and there's really no reason to change it.