The Forbidden Kingdom

2008, Movie, PG-13, 113 mins


Kung-fu obsessed 12-year-olds of all ages are the target audience for Rob Minkoff and John Fusco's fantasy, in which a nerdy teen is transported to ancient China, where he's trained by two great martial artists (Jackie Chan and Jet Li, working together for the first time) as he tries to return a mystical artifact to the fabled Monkey King (Li).

South Boston teen Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) is the goofy guy girls tease and tough guys beat up. He takes refuge in the martial arts movies he buys from ancient Chinese pawn-shop keeper Old Hop (Chan), until local toughs force him to help them rob the store. When Old Hop resists, head hood Lupo (Morgan Benoit) shoots him. With what may be his last breath, Old Hop charges Jason with returning to its rightful owner an ornate staff that's been languishing in a back room since his grandfather's time. Jason doesn't have a clue how he's supposed to do that, but fate has her ways: Lupo's thugs chase Jason off a rooftop, and he wakes up in a Chinese mountain village. Jason quickly learns that the staff belongs to the Monkey King (Li), who was turned to stone by the cruel Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), and is rescued from his brutal army by a drunken itinerant scholar named Lu Yan, aka the legendary Drunken Master (also Chan). They join forces with Sparrow (Yifei Liu), a young woman looking to avenge her family, whom the Jade Warlord murdered, and by the equally legendary Silent Monk (Jet Li). As they journey towards the palace of the Jade Emperor, high atop the mountain of five elements, Jason lives every chop-socky obsessed teen's fantasy, learning the way of the fist from not one but two two masters and falling in love with the gravely beautiful Sparrow.

Minkoff and Fusco's story is pitched somewhere between homage and spoof, filled with loving allusions to Chow Brothers kung fu epics and characters like the Drunken Master, the trickster Monkey King and the whip-wielding bride with white hair (Li Bing Bing), and gentle digs at too-devoted fanboys: "You watch too much Hong Kong phooey," Old Hop chides Jason. "Crouching Tiger, Spanking Monkey!" The contemporary sequences have a vague 1980s vibe, as befits a film in which martial arts movies are nerd-boy territory, and Angarano is a real find, convincing both as victimized Jason and a the fledgling martial arts master. Chan is terrific in a familiar role -- he had his first hit with 1978's DRUNKEN MASTER, the first film that successfully exploited both his formidable martial arts skills and his flair for physical comedy – and Li is right at home in the role of the warrior monk, though less so as the Monkey King; cheeky humor isn't his forte. But to see the two of them on screen together, even past their primes, is a delight. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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