The Forbidden Kingdom
Bottom Line: Kung fu comes to Oz, but where is Toto?What do you get when you mix "The Wizard of Oz," "The Karate Kid," "Rush Hour" and "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"? You get a hodgepodge titled "The Forbidden Kingdom," which will please its core audience but won't enthrall anyone over the age of 16. (Even that might be stretching the point.)
Young males adore martial arts movies with plenty of well-choreographed mayhem. To ensure the involvement of that key demographic, the film provides a teenage American hero, Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), magically transported from his south Boston neighborhood to ancient China, where he gets to study kung fu under the guidance of two masters of Asian cinema, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. The first-ever teaming of Chan and Li is a shrewd commercial ploy, and the movie looks poised for strong opening-weekend business. But the weak script will keep it from enduring for long.
In the opening scene, after visiting an elderly Chinese pawnbroker (Chan), Jason is pummeled by a neighborhood bully and wakes up in China, where he is thrust into the middle of a battle to rescue an old wizard, the Monkey King (Li). He finds himself in the possession of a magical staff (much like Dorothy's ruby slippers) sought by heroes and villains alike. Friends (including younger incarnations of Chan and Li) materialize to aid him in his journey, but he also is pursued by a wicked white-haired witch (Li Bing Bing) on his way to the Emerald City -- er, the golden fortress, where an evil warlord keeps the Monkey King imprisoned in stone.
John Fusco's dialogue is often laughable, encumbered by spiritual mumbo jumbo ("You have come far through the gate of no gate") or incongruous contemporary slang of the "Dude, what's happening?" variety. But few people go to martial arts movies to savor the elegant language, and as an action extravaganza, the film delivers. Cinematographer Peter Pau and choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen honed their skills on "Crouching Tiger" and many other Asian and American movies. "Kingdom" was filmed in China and benefits from lush costume and set design.
Li as the Zen master and Chan as his more comical sidekick build on their familiar personas and demonstrate the chops that their fans appreciate. Angarano, who recently appeared in the very different "Snow Angels," is rapidly establishing himself as one of the most promising young American actors. The rest of the performers meet the demands of their roles, which are not exactly arduous. Under Rob Minkoff's direction, everything unfolds predictably, which is why the film ultimately becomes tedious. The fight scenes (including Jason's climactic battle with the bullies back in south Boston) are fun, but the filler in between is deadlier than one of Li's lethal kicks.
THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM
The Weinstein Co., Relativity Media, Casey Silver Prods.
Director: Rob Minkoff
Screenwriter: John Fusco
Producer: Casey Silver
Executive producers: Ryan Kavanaugh, Woo-Ping Yuen, Wang Zhongjun, Jon Feltheimer, Raffaella De Laurentiis
Director of photography: Peter Pau
Production designer: Bill Brzeski
Music: David Buckley
Co-producer: Scott Fischer
Co-executive producers: Willie Chan, Solon So, Steve Chasman, Jason C. Lin, David U. Lee
Costume designer: Shirley Chan
Editor: Eric Strand
Old Hop/Lu Yan: Jackie Chan
The Monkey King/The Silent Monk: Jet Li
Jason Tripitikas: Michael Angarano
Golden Sparrow: Liu Yifei
Jade Warlord: Collin Chou
Ni Chang: Li Bing Bing
Jade Emperor: Wang De Shun
Lupo: Morgan Benoit
Running time -- 105 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13