What was meant to be a tribute to old-style Chinese cinema fails miserably in Rob Minkoff’s “The Forbidden Kingdom.” With a legendary cast, namely Jackie Chan and Jet Li, joining forces on screen for the first time, not to mention the help of action choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen, who was capable of turning robotic Keanu Reeves and Hugo Weaving into martial arts machines in “The Matrix” trilogy, and putting a serious spin on girl power in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and both volumes of “Kill Bill,” the movie is meant to be solid. But perhaps Minkoff and screenwriter John Fusco were too starstruck to create a plot to match these martial arts giants’ talent; thanks to the collective talents of Yuen, Li and Chan, the action sequences are the sole gems of the show.
Unlike Yuen’s choreography, Fusco’s plot never quite takes flight. It’s a wonder the plot made it past the pitch. In a poor attempt to westernize an ancient classic myth of the Chinese Monkey King, a mischievous celestial troublemaker, writer John Fusco creates two discordant parallel plots: the American schoolyard gang plot and old-school Chinese legendary Monkey King cinema. Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), a modern American teenage kung fu-phile who gets sucked back in time to save heaven and China. Essentially, it’s the Hollywoodized version of Ronny Yu’s 1997 film, “Warriors of Virtue,” sans creepy kangaroos.
Armed with only a special staff, Jason builds up a blandly archetypal gang of friends: the drunken master (Chan), the ignorant Caucasian, the evil warrior, the attractive young woman with a taste for revenge (China’s new starlet Yifei Liu) and the typical American movie role for Li ““ the silent monk (Li tends to avoid speaking English, the primary language of “Forbidden”). The plot is further complicated as Jason must return the staff to the Monkey King who is held prisoner by the ruthless, power-hungry Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) and femme fatale Ni Chang (Bingbing Li). Though the film has a star-heavy Chinese cast, the plot falls into the same snare of travel-heavy narratives such as “Pirates of the Caribbean 3″: There are far too many travel sequences, awkward transitions between scenes and an extremely weak connection between Jason’s American life and his adventure in ancient China.
The film ultimately succumbs to mediocrity not only in its character representations or a very shoddy travel-narrative plot, but also because of a very disappointing tastelessness in humor and dialogue. Li emerged from retirement following what was supposed to be his final action flick, “Fearless,” only to urinate in Chan’s face in one scene. Even more tastelessly, the PG-13 dialogue ventures into risky territory in the first 15 minutes, dropping a racial slur to which some Chinese-Americans might take offense. Such scenes and dialogue are vastly inappropriate, humorless and otherwise unnecessary for prodding along an already sluggish plot with flatly developed characters.
“The Forbidden Kingdom” might be a good quick fix for those craving a kung fu action film, but it might be more worthwhile to return to classic, lighthearted martial arts flicks like Chan’s “Legend of Drunken Master” and Li’s “Once Upon a Time in China”.