Reviewed from an advance screening in Dallas on April 15, 2008.
The Forbidden Kingdom marks the first-ever pairing of cinematic martial arts stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and the combination is strong enough to overcome a weak premise to deliver an enjoyable wire-fu adventure. You’ll have a good time, as long as your expectations are not too high. After all, this isn’t Hamlet. It isn’t even Crouching Tiger. Why bother focusing on the weak points when the ride is so much fun?
The movie opens in ancient China with a fight involving the Monkey King (also played by Li), a creature from Japanese legend. This should be your first indication that this isn’t reaching for Oscar heights. Once the plot gets going, it involves an American kid from modern day being transported back in time, where he teams up with a monk played by Jet Li and a drunken kung-fu master played by Jackie Chan. Cheesy, yes, but director Rob Minkoff knows what the audience wants, and the action comes fast and the viewer is treated to extended, well-choreographed fight scenes.
Jackie Chan has stated that he has been trying to make a film with Jet Li for nearly two decades, and the reasons appear obvious once you see the film. Li and Chan have great chemistry, and elevate the film from standard martial arts fantasy to something special. Their first scene together delivers the goods: a case of mistaken identity leads to a fight that is easily the highlight of the film.
Eventually, Chan and Li team up with the American kid and a Chinese orphan in a journey to defeat the Jade Warlord, all the while being chased by a female bounty hunter. The journey keeps the plot and the action going, and rather than falter in the second act by slowing the pace down, the film continues to roll until the finale, a battle royale involving all of the characters in the Jade Warlord’s palace. Rather than use Chan’s signature comical, prop-heavy fighting style, the action is straight-forward and satisfying.
Matrix star Collin Chou plays the film’s villain, the Jade Warlord, and holds his own, when he could have been overshadowed by Chan and Li. He actually appears first in the film and boasts a strong presence. Li also has a second role as the Monkey King
While it does have its faults, John Fusco’s script is strong in the right parts, especially in the personal interaction between Chan’s drunken character and Li’s uptight monk. The dialogue is snappy and kept the audience in the advance screening laughing, and they happily applauded at the end. When so many films today are over-promoted and often disappoint, it is nice to see a film that surpasses expectations and leaves the audience wanting more. The film is rated PG-13 for martial arts violence, but is suitable for most kids 10 and older. There is little blood and light profanity.