Marking the first-ever on-screen pairing of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, The Forbidden Kingdom is a piece of movie history. Not only for the Pacino-De Niro meeting of the best martial artists in the movies: made entirely in China, it marks the first popular American movie to rely mainly on a Chinese cast and crew.
Based on the Chinese legend Journey to the West, it’s really a journey to the east. Bullied American teenager Jason Tripitikas slips through time into mythical China, charged with retrieving a magic staff which can release the Monkey King from the clutches of the Jade Warrior.
But Jason – like Po, the Kung Fu Panda – sucks at kung fu. Lucky for him he encounters drunken warrior Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) who agrees to teach him martial arts and find the Monkey King. Joined by revenge-hungry girl Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei) and the mysterious Silent Monk (Jet Li), the quartet must face the evil White Haired Demoness (Chinese star Li Bingbing) and the might of the Jade Warrior’s forces.
Ravishingly filmed by Crouching Tiger photographer Peter Pau, The Forbidden Kingdom is probably the best-quality blockbuster on the block. China’s landscapes drip colour and match, in popular form, the quality visuals of Zhang Yimou’s trio of martial arts movies.
Veteran action choreographer Yuen Wo Ping brings an awesomely inventive brio to the exciting martial arts. Known latterly for his eye-opening action in The Matrix and Kill Bill, Wo Ping is better known as Jackie Chan’s old class-mate in the Peking Opera School and director of Chan’s best early films (Drunken Master, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow).
No wonder then that Jackie and Jet’s face-off is so ferociously entertaining. Surprising, though, is the generous time devoted to their sparring – a longer action sequence than most American films, including Jackie's and Jet’s stateside outings, usually allow. Safely wrapped in swathing bands of special effects near the end, the action is impressive but never violent.
The Forbidden Kingdom is a hugely enjoyable action adventure – even if you don’t like martial arts. But underneath, it’s an aficionado’s dream. Director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, Stuart Little) and screenwriter John Fusco cram the film with kung fu movie references. Even the White Haired Demoness has stepped out of Hong Kong classic Bride with White Hair.
And the American kid – Michael Angarano (Sky High) – is refreshingly down to earth and makes a welcome change from the ubiquitous and slightly shallow persona of Shia Lebeouf (Transformers, Indiana Jones IV).
It’s a great summer for martial arts movies. See Kung Fu Panda by all means. But The Forbidden Kingdom is as beautifully made, is even funnier and the martial arts are for real. And when Jackie and Jet meet – those cats are fast as lightning.