Well it’s about time.
There was a moment when the late-90’s Hong Kong invasion looked like it was going to be a boon for American cinema, but when some of the greatest stars and most promising directors of the far east finally arrived and actually started working in Hollywood, they immediately started cranking out inferior works.
Jackie Chan managed to become a household name, but he managed to do so mostly through a string of buddy action comedies pairing him Western co-stars (or, as I like to think of them, minders) that delivered diminishing returns.
Jet Li tried to go a more bad-ass route, but the results were simply bad, and he ended up the taciturn villain or sexless, speechless hero in movies with blaring hip hop soundtracks.
It really shouldn’t have taken a decade for someone to figure out that instead of diluting Hong Kong heroes’skills and star power with something homegrown, they should maybe appear in the same movies together.
Which brings us to The Forbidden Kingdom, the first time Chan and Li have shared the screen and, more importantly for kung fu fans, fought each other.
Too bad the pair are essentially co-starring in their own film, serving as supporting cast members in a movie about American teenager Jason Tripitikas (The Shia LeBouef-y Michael Angarano), “another white boy who wants to know kung fu, kick ass, get the girl.”
He’s at the heart of the director Rob Minkoff and writer John Fusco’s Never Ending Story-like tale of a bullied young kung fu film fan who winds up in ancient China, the chosen one in a quest to reunite the mythical Monkey King (acquired from a China Town pawn shop, nach) with his magical bo staff.
Despite the clichéd quest nature and the often unconvincing emotional content, Minkoff and Fusco know more than enough to pack the film with character types and set pieces from the movies the young hero and his audience will recognize—from other kung fu movies and Eastern pop culture, if not their original mythical and folklore sources.
You’ve got the Monkey King and Jade Emperor form epic story Journey to the West, you’ve got your white-haired witch with prehensile hair like in Bride With White Hair, you’ve got a version of the character Sparrow (played by Cheing Pei Pei in old Shaw Brothers films), a white eyebrow monk and, at one point, an army of bald-headed warrior monks.
The same knowing-ness is applied to Chan and Li’s characters. Jackie Chan dons a dreadlock wig to play a master of drunken kung fu a la his two classic Drunken Master movies (although here he’s the old man teacher, not the young pupil), and Jet Li plays a mostly silent, long-sleeved monk. (He also plays The Monkey King, though he’s hardly recognizable under a layer of gold paint, glued-on fur and a cheeky persona that involves a lot of giggling and mincing about).
The fight between Chan’s drunken master and Li’s silent monk, which, like all of those in the film is choreographed by fellow Hong Kong import Yuen Woo-Ping, is satisfyingly long, but, unfortunately, is the sole scene where the two show much chemistry together. After that, it’s a quick training montage to teach the white boy his kung fu, a walk through the desert and it’s off to fight the emperor.
The narrated dénouement suggests the ending of every story being the beginning of another (depending on box office receipts, of course), but while a Forbidden Kingdom II seems rather pointless, more collaborations between Jet Li and Jackie Chan would certainly be welcome.
More welcome than Rush Hour IV anyway.