April 24, 2008

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The Forbidden Kingdom (PG-13)
Jet Li and Jackie Chan teach a kung fu-loving teen how to stand up for himself in The Forbidden Kingdom, a goofy blend of adventure and a mainstream style of martial arts.

Jason (Michael Angarano) is a big fan of kung fu ó perhaps because while watching those films he can dream of a world in which he isnít pushed around, as he is by the neighborhood kids. One day on the way home from the pawn shop in Chinatown (his supplier for the very best in kung fu movies), heís met by a group of boys who look and sound like they just came from West Side Story tryouts. With questionable accents and 1950s hoodlum haircuts, the boys smack Jason around a bit before threatening him into taking them back to the pawn shop, which also happens to be a check-cashing stop. Using Jason to get the owner to open the door, the would-be Jets force their way in and search for the cash, with the king bully shooting the pawn shop owner in the chest. The boys chase Jason, now what youíd call a material witness, but before he leaves the shop he grabs an ornate fighting stick that the shop owner tells him to return to the rightful owner.

Jason dashes through the alley and up to a roof top and, just as the lead Outsider is about to shoot him, the stick yanks him backward ó backward off the roof and then backward into time.

When Jason wakes up, he finds himself in ancient China ó helpfully, dressed in period-appropriate clothes and able to understand Chinese, which we and he hear as English (or something, the language thing is a little sketchy). He soon meets up with Lu Yan (Chan), a drunken traveler who tells him that the fighting stick is very special and belongs to the Monkey King, an immortal with a Bart Simpson-ish sense of humor who was turned into stone and will re-emerge when heís reunited with his weapon. Of course, thereís a bad guy who also wants the stick ó the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). The only way home, Lu Yan tells Jason, is to get the weapon back to the Monkey King statue before the Jade Warlord gets to it. Lu Yan soon finds out that that task will be harder than it sounds, what with Jason having no kung fu and the warlord having set an assassin (Bing Bing Li) after them. Luckily, Jasonís team will get a little help from the vengeance-seeking Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu) and a highly skilled fighting monk (Jet Li).

The Forbidden Kingdom is a kung fu movie in the same way that the Kung Pao chicken you get at the mall is Chinese food. But that doesnít mean some nice greasy, completely inauthentic takeout doesnít hit the spot sometimes and some nice, cheesy fighting and quipping isnít equally satisfying. Chan and Li have a prolonged fight scene here and it isnít a ballet of violence but it is a well choreographed little cha-cha. Their styles, Chanís jokey good humor and Liís stoicism, work well enough together both in comic moments and in their various battles. The group fights faceless minions with standard hit-one-guy-and-three-fall-back tactics. The gal fighters seem rather hair-centric in their methods ó the Sparrow has some immortal slaying jade darts and the assassin can strangle and capture with a whip of her long white locks. But this diner-food approach (rather than the martial arts haute cuisine of those Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon epics) works just fine.

With its slightly too-bright colors and its magic-infused weapons, The Forbidden Kingdom quickly sets itself up as a fantasy and an American movie riff on kung fu rather than an exact re-creation of the genuine article. A bit souvenior tacky, itís nonetheless a good time. B-

Rated PG-13 for sequences of martial arts action and some violence. Directed by Rob Minkoff and writer John Fusco, The Forbidden Kingdom is an hour and 53 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Lionsgate.