THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM Directed by Rob Minkoff, written by John Fusco, with Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Michael Angarano, Liu Yifei. 113 minutes. A Sony Pictures release. Opens Friday (April 18). Rating: NNNN
The Forbidden Kingdom is a lively and likeable mainstream fantasy quest packed with action and humour. It's also a smart and loving tribute to the genre that unobtrusively enhances the fun for knowledgeable kung fu movie fans.
American teen Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), beset by thugs, falls off a building and wakes up in ancient China, where he discovers that it's up to him to return the magic staff to the Monkey King (Jet Li), imprisoned in stone 500 years earlier by the Jade Warlord (a delightfully oily Collin Chou). Along the way, he's helped by drunken kung fu master Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), the Silent Monk (Jet Li again) and Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei).
Tripitikas, the Monkey King and the Jade Warlord come from Journey To The West, a 16th-century work acclaimed as one of China's four great classical novels. In it, Tripitikas is a saintly monk sent to India to bring back Buddhist scriptures and Monkey his guide and protector. A moment from Monkey Goes West, one of the many film versions, is visible on Jason's TV in The Forbidden Kingdom.
Monkey Goes West is Hong Kong wackiness at it's finest and well worth a trip to Chinatown for your own copy. The novel, translated as Adventures Of The Monkey God, is lots of fun, too. Check it out.
Lu Yan might be named for a character from the 14th-century classic Romance Of The Three Kingdoms, but he acts like Beggar So, Chan's teacher in the original Drunken Master (1978). Golden Sparrow, as Golden Swallow, starred in a pair of 1960s Shaw Brothers hits, and secondary villain the white-haired witch is another character from a novel, most recently filmed as The Bride With White Hair (1993).
None of these characters fits together, but that doesn't matter. If Hong Kong filmmakers were Americans, they'd put Al Capone at the Alamo with Davy Crockett and never bat an eye. Clearly, scripter John Fusco loves and understands the genre. He's even swiped quotes from the Tai Chi Classics to give the obligatory training sequence some weight.
Director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) makes his landscapes look both epic and magical and knows how to pitch the sentimental and comic moments to a western audience.Sadly, Yuen Woo-ping's action choreography is not brilliant. That's doubly disappointing because he guided both Jackie Chan and Jet Li to stardom as Wong Fei-hung, the hero of both Drunken Master (1978) and Once Upon A Time In China (1991). Keep a sharp eye on their battle and you'll see some Wong Fei-hung moves from each of them. Otherwise, it's too much wire work and too few breathtaking moves.
As an actor, Chan has stopped trying to prove how lovable he is, freeing him to turn in a good character performance. Li is less lucky. He just doesn't have the antic glee necessary for the Monkey King, and the Silent Monk is mostly stone-faced.