Saturday, April 19, 2008

Hong Kong Phooey

A review with an international flavor today. Just like General Mills coffee.

The Forbidden Kingdom (d. Rob Minkoff)

In Rob Minkoff's The Forbidden Kingdom, there's no kingdom (it's an empire) and nothing is especially forbidden. So why call the movie "The Forbidden Kingdom?" My theory is it's called The Forbidden Kingdom because "Semi-Enchanted Empire of Over-The-Hill Hong Kong Chop-Sockey Stars that You Can Get Into by Falling off of a Building" wouldn't fit on the poster. It's just a theory.

The main attraction here, however, isn't the nonsensical title -- enjoyable as that is -- but rather the fact that for the first time ever, Hong Kong legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li are appearing in a film together. For fans of the genre (and I count myself among them) this is akin to the moment when DeNiro and Pacino sit down across from each other at that lunch-counter table in Heat. Or maybe it's more like the pairing of 1970s action film legends Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood in City Heat.

Maybe they could have called the film "Forbidden Heat?" Nah.

Both Chan and Li are past their bobbing and weaving primes, but it's still a kick to see them together. Chan does a sort-of reprise, sort-of parody of his Drunken Master character, sucking down wine at every turn because wine is the magical elixir that gives him his immortality. When I claim that, they call me a cab and send me home.

Li meanwhile is the Silent Monk, who gets pretty chatty as the movie progresses. He is out to find the magical staff that will bring the statue of the Monkey King back to life so he, in turn, can destroy the evil Jade Emperor. You know, THAT old plot.

Of course, no one is supposed to take any of this material seriously. It's all there to supply an excuse for the martial arts and the magic powers and the madcap dialogue. All of which would be fine if the martial arts and the magic powers and the madcap dialogue were original or fun or engaging. They're not.

One problem is that the movie really isn't about Li or Chan at all. It's about Jason, a Boston teen who's obsessed with the Hong Kong martial arts genre and video games, and who runs afoul of some stock thugs. As Jason, Michael Angarano has about as much charisma as a paper cup. And half the acting ability.

Jason comes into possession of the magic staff, then does a header off a junk shop roof while trying to avoid the neighborhood pubescent criminal contingent and ends up in Magic China. No explanation. It makes one wonder why they bothered with the real world set up at all.

Once there, he meets up with the Drunken Chanster and Golden Sparrow, a girl who has trained herself to kill the immortal Jade Emperor with a dart that looks like a drillbit. Thankfully, it does not look like Drillbit Taylor.

They are joined by the aforementioned Silent Monk and soon, they're off to see the wizard. The most enjoyable scenes in the movie follow as Chan and Li cheerfully torture Jason under the pretext of training him. I could have gone for this kid getting a few more punches in the face.

Far more interesting than Jason (not that it's hard to be far more interesting than Jason) is the female contingent of the cast. Yifei Liu as Golden Sparrow has sad eyes and a somber disposition; she's the only one not treating the story as a goof. And Li Bingbing (I LOVE that name) is sexy and genuinely menacing as Ni Chang, a Witch with Halle Berry's hair from X-Men and Halle Berry's whip from Catwoman.

When the inevitable confrontation between Li and Chan comes, it can't help but be disappointing; neither is 28 any more. More discouraging than that, however, is the extensive use of digital effects and obvious body doubling for two guys who made their names by performing all their own stunts. When they fight, all you can do is pine for the past glories.

The Forbidden Kingdom can't muster the whimsy of Chan's best work, and doesn't even try for the ferocity of Li's. So we're left with the kid from Boston learning some vague lesson or other. And that does not a Kingdom make.

2 stars.

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