Jackie Chan vs. Jet Li: This time, it’s personal!
Actually, these two martial arts masters have never faced each other before, which in theory is the primary allure of “The Forbidden Kingdom.” But while the first (and only) time they fight each other is swollen with anticipation and indeed thrilling, the rest of the movie is a solid, though forgettable, family-friendly action flick.
Longtime animation director Rob Minkoff (“The Lion King,” “Stuart Little”), working from a script by John Fusco (“Young Guns”), tells a story inspired by the Chinese legend of the Monkey King.
Scrawny Boston teenager Jason (Michael Angarano), who’s obsessed with kung fu movies yet frequently gets beaten up by bullies with wicked-awful New England accents, magically ends up one day in the countryside of ancient China. A powerful staff, which Jason discovers in a Chinatown pawn shop run by the wisecracking Old Hop (Chan), sends him back in time. He must return the fighting stick to its rightful owner, the mischievous Monkey King (Li), to free him from imprisonment by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou, smothered in ornate robes and blue eye shadow).
Jason gets help in his quest from two disparate teachers: the stumbling Lu Yan (Chan again, revisiting his Drunken Master persona) and the Silent Monk (Li again, all restrained charisma). Also along for the ride is the Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), a young warrior seeking revenge against the warlord for killing her parents.
Sparrow has an annoying habit of referring to herself in the third person — “She’s not a child, not anymore,” she says of herself — and seems awkwardly wedged in as a potential love interest for the innocent Jason. But her presence does set up the inevitable catfight with the White-Haired Demoness (Li Bing Bing), a sort of Asian Christina Aguilera whom the Jade Warlord has dispatched to retrieve the staff for himself.
The main event, though, is between Lu Yan and the Silent Monk. And it comes pretty early, in a temple, when neither of them realizes they’re on the same side. Chan and Li are both such veterans, the speed and fluidity of their dance suggest the kind of familiarity that comes from years of working together. After a prolonged battle, they call it a draw and decide to team up to help Jason — the “seeker” they’ve been expecting from a prophecy — bring the staff back to the Monkey King.
The running joke each time a new person meets Jason is to ask him, “How good is your kung fu?” Well, his kung fu is not strong, prompting Lu Yan and the monk, mentors with conflicting approaches, to teach him a thing or two. Here’s where “The Forbidden Kingdom” turns into “The Karate Kid”: All Jason knows of fighting, he’s learned from video games. All he gets for training, at least initially, consists of whacking through tall grass with the fighting stick and then maybe learning how to block a punch (but more likely getting punched instead as his two teachers toss him about).
Eventually, Jason will turn into a lean, mean fighting machine. It’s all familiar but amusing — though the present-day framing device feels painfully clunky.
“The Forbidden Kingdom” also features all-stars behind the camera in cinematographer Peter Pau, an Oscar winner for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” and action choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen, the mastermind behind the moves in “Crouching Tiger” as well as the “Matrix” and “Kill Bill” movies.
Nothing about “The Forbidden Kingdom” comes close to leaving the sort of indelible cultural mark those previous films did, but it’s a sufficiently entertaining diversion.