The Forbidden Kingdom features the first ever on screen pairing of cinema’s two greatest living martial arts legends: Jet Li and Jackie Chan. That alone makes this movie a must see for anyone and everyone, but screenwriter John Fusco and director Rob Minkoff have done more than simply throw two of kung fu’s most famous faces together in the same picture. They’ve crafted a magical film using both Chan and Li’s legendary reputations as the lynchpins in telling an entertaining, crowd-pleasing, action-fantasy story.
Initially the film pours itself into the mold of The Neverending Story, only this time the kid in question isn’t obsessed with old books, but with Kung Fu movies. Like Neverending’s Bastian, Jason is a social outcast accosted by almost cartoonish bullies. He finds comfort hanging out in a Chinatown store browsing for forgotten martial arts films and chatting with its elderly, somewhat cranky owner. Forbidden Kingdom isn’t copying The Neverending Story, it’s just tapping into those same, primal geek-energies by taking its character to a place every awkward, put-upon kid can understand. And like the Neverending Story, it uses that energy to form an instant, sympathetic connection with its audience for Jason, before launching him into a fantastical adventure.
At the back of the store, Jason finds an antique bowstaff which, when trouble starts, magically propels him back through time to an ancient, forgotten China ruled by an evil overlord. Lost and out of his element, Jason meets two legendary Kung Fu masters who take him under their wing and guide him down a path which will not only free China, but send him home. The masters in question are played by Jackie Chan and Jet Li, but they aren’t just played by them, they are them. Forbidden Kingdom gives them different names of course. Chan is a drunken Kung Fu master named Lu Yan, and Li is a pious monk named Lan Cai He. But the characters are written to be avatars composed of both Chan and Li’s greatest on screen moments, and the film takes advantage of the mystique and power of our past perception of these two actors to make them seem doubly heroic.
Because of the way it uses it’s stars, The Forbidden Kingdom delivers on every level, both as an fun, fantasy film and as a the long awaited, team-up tribute to the genre’s two greatest stars. Maybe it’s ten years too late, after all Chan and Li are now long past their prime, and Jackie in particular has been noticeably slipping in his most recent previous films. Years of insane stuntwork have taken a toll on both master’s bodies. It doesn’t matter. Whatever either of these men had left in the tank, they use it all up here. You’ll thrill as the film has them revisit and pay tribute to some of their greatest martial arts fight choreography, and then lets every fan live out every fantasy he’s had by making them use it on each other. And that’s just in the first thirty minutes.
The rest of the cast is just as good. Minkoff could have gotten away with casting blocks of wood and the audience probably still would’ve been happy, as long as Jackie and Jet go at it, but Michael Angarano is capable as the film’s lead. Minkoff uses him as a stand in for us, as a way for an audience of Jackie and Jet’s fans to put themselves in the movie and be transported to a world where they get to do Kung Fu with the artform’s greatest heroes.
Some of the villains are over the top, the effects are formidable, and fight scenes frequently disobey the laws of physics, but it’s all part of the fun. The Forbidden Kingdom is an unabashedly innocent, wide-eyed movie selling the ultimate in martial arts fantasy. It delivers beautifully, on every level with fight sequences that pop, breathtaking landscapes, and classic good guys versus bad guys family-friendly drama. Forget Batman vs. Superman. Jackie and Jet are bigger, better, and they’re together for the first, and almost certainly last time in a film that’s unbelievably worthy of playing host to their formidable reputations.