In Michael Mann’s Heat, audiences felt their breaths catch waiting for Al Pacino and Robert De Niro to converse together onscreen in the diner, each sizing the other man up in a way that feels nearly Shakespearean. In the movies of Nora Ephron, we felt a similar thrill when Tom Hanks fell in love with Meg Ryan and the two began their happily ever after in the sunny, flower-filled Central Park conclusion of You’ve Got Mail. And in the first onscreen pairing of legendary action stars Jet Li and Jackie Chan for director Rob Minkoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom, as soon as Chan stumbles into the same scene as Li and utters, “Do you come here often?” the last thing I wanted for the men was the two to chat or fall in love. Instead, like nearly every other audience member and undoubtedly Chan and Li themselves, I wanted to see them fight. And fight they do in this uneven but gorgeous spectacle before their characters end up on the same side in helping a modern day South Boston teen who, via a pawnshop and a magical Bo Staff that’s propelled him back in time to ancient China, return the staff to its rightful owner, the Monkey King (Li in a second role).
Beginning as a near homage to Back to the Future, the movie opens with Kung Fu movie obsessed Jason (Shia LaBeouf look-alike Michael Angarano) being forced to aid in a robbery by a band of dangerous bullies that goes wrong and hurls him into the past where he soon meets Chan’s Drunken Master inspired Lu Yan, a perpetually wine-chugging fighter specializing in Drunken Fist which he explains is the “secret Kung Fu of the south.” To restore the order of the land, Jason and Yan decide to bring the Bo Staff back to the Monkey King, who the evil Jade War Lord (Collin Chou) has frozen in stone for roughly five hundred years “give or take a few decades,” and on their peril filled journey to the Five Elements Mountain, they find their team increasing with the addition of a beautiful vengeance seeking orphan Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu) along with the monk Lan Cai He (Jet Li). The characters and indeed plot from Young Guns screenwriter John Fusco (who is currently writing the questionable new version of Seven Samurai), were derived mostly from “Chinese mythology and adventure pulps” as well from the “Chinese epic story Journey to the West [which is] one of the four great classic novels of Chinese literature,” according to IMDb.
When the battles with an evil witch with stark white hair and other dangerous allies of the War Lord become far more treacherous, Back to the Future morphs into The Karate Kid as Yan takes it upon himself to teach Jason how to fight. The introduction of this element not only provides the characters with more plot from scripter Fusco who went through, as IMDb reports five rewrites (some during the film’s shoot) but also gives the film’s producer and fight choreographer the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping (Crouching Tiger, The Matrix trilogy, Kill Bill 1 & 2) a chance to style some of the most thrilling and high flying fight scenes we’ve seen in years which, even when the film becomes self-consciously cheesy, are worth the price of admission alone.
Although it’s hard to fault a film with this much sheer entertainment value for its inability to sit side by side with works like House of Flying Daggers or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to which, I believe most of the audience was hoping the first collaboration of Li and Chan would compare, for fans of the actors, especially my personal favorite-- the hilarious and charismatic Chan, it’s definitely a treat. And hopefully it’s also one that will lead to even more pairings and possibly a grander cinematic approach, aside from the film's major standout that comes in the form of the jaw-dropping, majestic cinematography by Oscar winning Peter Pau (Crouching Tiger). However, until we get there, The Forbidden Kingdom is a great place to start.