Maybe it isn’t the greatest kung fu epic of all time, but it certainly interweaves a lot of disparate highlights. There’s the obvious: Jackie Chan and Jet Li, both recently “retired” from action filmmaking, come together for the first time. The Forbidden Kingdom also bridges two of the most delightfully cheesy aspects of action films-a cross between American fantasy and the Hong Kong wuxia, when an urban Boston kid (Michael Angarano) is inducted by destiny into the shared world of Chinese mythology. Chan plays both a drunken master and a wise shopkeeper, while Li serves as a monkey lord (it’s a Darwinian thing) and insanely dedicated monk. As icing on the cake, Hong Kong bad-guy expert Collin Chou is a nice-but-evil warlord with some powerful chi magic of his own.
If that’s not worth the admission, there’s your basic elegant fight choreography from Yuen Wo Ping, who also gave us the stunningly clear and beautiful dustups from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (Viewers should also note that this is the first time Chan has starred in a film where he didn’t also design the acrobatic sequences. His cartoon wit remains the same.)
So what’s the problem? It’s hard to shake the patronizing touch of Hollywood’s five fingers of profit-motive. Why give a project wrought with this much expectation to a non-martial arts-experienced director? Then there is the trivializing use of an American kid as the Chosen One. It’s just plain racist to take a genre so thoroughly Asian and then let a relatively weak actor dominate the story and overshadow the legends everybody else really wants to see.
But it is the first action movie of the long hot summer, and as popcorn-fodder it will do. It’s useful to remember though, that the phrase Forbidden Kingdom implies a kind of hostility to foreigners, and this film, no matter how fun, compounds the hostility by stealing that kingdom’s treasures and, yet again, passing them smugly off as its own.