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.
Jet Li and Jason Statham are prototypical examples of how to be modern-day action movie stars, and their repertoire of films showcases their amazing abilities in both martial arts and stunts. Reuniting for the first time since 2001’s mediocre “The One,” it would be logical to assume their latest film “War” would be a worthy addition to their careers.
The plot is what one would expect from a movie of this sort—an assorted hodgepodge of the stories from a dozen or so other films, amassed and thrown together here to fill the gaps in between the action. FBI agent Jack Crawford (Statham) is on the hunt for the mysterious assassin known only as Rogue (Li), who happened to kill Crawford’s partner three years ago. In the meantime, a deadly feud ensues between the Chinese and Japanese mobs, and Crawford and Rogue are caught right in the middle.
In a movie such as this, the plot is essentially reduced to an afterthought to make room for the action sequences, which are the main draw and reason to see the film in the first place. Unfortunately, someone should have reminded the filmmakers of this.
The movie inexplicably gets bogged down by its second-rate plot, relying more often on the dialogue instead of the stunts. The more time they focus on the story, the more we realize how poor and cliché-driven it is, a weakness it never recovers from. Matters only worsen when they pull off a huge twist of an ending so ridiculous it’s hard to take any of it seriously.
When the action finally does come, which is at a fairly consistent rate throughout the second half, it fails to live up to its billing. While it’s not bad, it’s also nothing we haven’t seen before, and done better previously by the parties involved. The at-times hyperactive editing doesn’t add much, if anything, and none of the film’s fights exhibit any sort of a “wow” element.
Li and Statham regrettably only have a handful of scenes together and, when they do finally meet up for their big confrontation, it can only be defined as disappointing. One would have thought choreographer Cory Yuen (“The Transporter”) could have been able to think up something far more creative, especially considering the talent he had at his disposal.
As far as the acting is concerned, it’s nothing special either. Li isn’t given too much to do other than look menacing, failing to build on his recent string of strong performances (“Hero,” “Unleashed,” “Fearless”). The martial arts aspect also tends to take a backseat to the gunplay, a questionable decision because martial arts are when Li is at his best.
Statham doesn’t fare much better. His cynical sense of humor and distinct charisma, which he exhibited in his early Guy Ritchie days (“Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels,” “Snatch”) and in last year’s “Crank,” is curiously missing. Here, only his customary gruff persona is on display, which robs Statham of the very reason why is so entertaining to watch. The cast is also brought down by the presence of John Lone, the annoying villain from “Rush Hour 2,” who is up to more of his grating over-the-top antics as the leader of the Chinese mob.
In the end, for a movie named “War,” there certainly isn’t as much fighting as one would expect. Instead, it spends too much time dwelling on its shoddy storyline and not enough providing the types of spectacles action aficionados anticipate. For Li and Statham fans, it’s still worth watching at some point just to see them together again, but for everyone else, there’s really not much incentive.