With the first pairing of martial arts legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li, a kung fu extravaganza of epic proportions should have been the result – anything less would be a disappointment. Regrettably, the project they selected was “The Forbidden Kingdom,” a westernized, watered-down tale that fails to take advantage of its stars.
In a shocking move, the main protagonist in the film is neither Chan nor Li but rather Boston teen Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), which is a fatal flaw it never recovers from. The character is wholly unnecessary and only diverts from the main reason anyone would see the film in the first place – to watch Chan and Li go at it for an hour and a half. By removing the middleman and allowing Chan and Li to take down the evil empire themselves, a much more effective creation surely would have been produced.
In the end, there simply is no need to follow around an American kid and his by the book wimp-to-hero story arc – it’s been seen before in everything from “The Karate Kid” to “A Kid in King Arthur’s Court,” and it doesn’t need repeating here. Instead, drop the whole American, kid-friendly feeling – heck, it doesn’t even need to be in English – and focus solely on the two stars pummeling their way through a sea of villains. Throw out the PG-13 rating and deliver some bone-cracking “Legend of Drunken Master” fight scenes. I know they’re both getting old – Chan is now 54, Li is 45 – but remind us again why they were celebrated before they made the jump to Hollywood. If a 65-year-old Harrison Ford can still rock the fedora as Indiana Jones, there’s no reason Chan and Li can’t do the same.
The fight scenes that did make it into the film are no slouch, staged by master choreographer Yuen Wo-Ping (“The Matrix,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”). They’re easily the highlight, particularly the one where Chan and Li battle each other, but everything in between them just gets in the way. From the story’s pointless exposition to its reliance on corny elements, including an over-the-top corrupt warlord and cartoon-ish Monkey King, it’s far from what it could have been. Hopefully the next time Chan and Li decide to hook up, they revert back to their Hong Kong roots and make a martial arts movie the right way.