Every day, lonely teenager Jason Tripitaka (Michael Angrano) hunts down bootleg kung fu DVDs at a Chinatown pawnshop. His love of old martial arts movies and friendship with elderly shopkeeper Hap (Jackie Chan in old geezer makeup) is all that brightens a dreary life where he is bullied and mocked by other kids. When street punks injure Hap and force Jason to help rob his store, he discovers a mysterious golden staff that magically transports him back to ancient China.
Here, Jason is rescued by drunken kung fu immortal Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) and later befriends vengeful sword-maiden Golden Sparrow (Liu Yi-Fei) and the sagely Silent Monk (Jet Li). These misfits are charged with a monumental task: they must free the legendary Monkey King (Jet Li in monkey makeup), who has been imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). Only by learning the true precepts of kung fu can Jason hope to succeed and find his way back home.
Whoever thought the man behind Stuart Little (1999) and The Lion King (1994) would be the one who finally got Jet Li and Jackie Chan together on screen. Moreover, in a lively, engaging adventure romp that plays like a love letter to Chinese cinema. From the opening credits where classic Shaw Brothers posters spring to animated life, to David Buckley’s witty musical score (that features a cheeky nod to Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to POnce Upon a Time in the West (1968) - which was much ripped off by kung fu movies), and a script peppered with references to masterworks like The Monkey Goes West (1964), Come Drink with Me (1966) (Golden Sparrow is a play on Cheng Pei Pei’s iconic heroine, Golden Swallow), and The Bride with White Hair (1992), this proves a neat treat for Hong Kong movie fans.
That writer John Fusco references movies with actual artistic merit rather than Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks proves his heart is in the right place, even if his pick and mix screenplay - which resembles The Neverending Story (1984) - takes a few liberties for the sake of an expedient plot. It wrongly presumes Monkey relies on his golden staff as the source of his powers, and wastes the White Haired Witch (Li Bing Bing) - a traditional heroine in wu xia novels - as a secondary villain. Neglecting the poetry and ambiguity of this fascinating character, her repeated refrain (“Men betray you, then leave”) goes unexplored.
Nevertheless, these lapses are unlikely to irk anyone except purists. The Forbidden Kingdom gets the tone largely spot-on, thanks to a production staff drawn from Hong Kong co-producers Emperor Motion Pictures. Legendary cameraman Peter Pau imparts a storybook feel and soaks up the spectacular Chinese scenery, eye-catching costumes and colourful flights of fancy. The high-flying wire-fu choreography by Yuen Woo Ping stays true to the madcap spirit of kung fu cinema, with some Monkey magic enhanced by CGI and a memorable tavern brawl where Lu Yan wields Jason like a human yo-yo. It’s nice to see Jackie given free reign as a drunken badass, unencumbered by hack directors and jackass co-stars like Chris Tucker. The movie proves a surprisingly fine showcase for his underrated acting. He’s memorable as the old man and downright touching as melancholy Lu Yan.
Of course the highpoint is his crowd-pleasing, multi-animal style kung fu scrap with Jet Li. It’s a wonderful clash between their two contrasting styles and probably the best action set-piece they’ve done in years. Chan and Li make a wonderful double-act, squabbling over who gets to train young Jason, paternally guiding Golden Sparrow away from hatred, and imparting the real philosophy behind kung fu as it applies to Chinese culture, and not the fortune-cookie wisdom found in Karate Kid clones.
Derided as a Shia LaBeouf imitator, Michael Angrano actually proves surprisingly likeable. While it’s typical that Hollywood thinks we need a Caucasian focal point in a Jackie Chan-Jet Li movie, at least Jason enjoys and endeavours to learn something from Chinese culture (in the Chinese cut, Jason’s time-travel magically enables him to speak fluent Cantonese) and doesn’t try to turn them into Americans. Which is more than can be said of similar movies from twenty years ago.
The plot often loses momentum, but resists the temptation to turn Jason into any kind of “chosen one” or martial arts dynamo, making his journey of self-discovery that more arduous and engaging. While The Forbidden Kingdom never scales the heights of delirium and poetry reached by A Chinese Odyssey (1995), it remains a fine introduction to Chinese fantasy for children.