The big draw behind “The Forbidden Kingdom” is in seeing two of martial-arts cinema’s all-time giants working together for the first time: Jackie Chan and Jet Li. It’s too bad it couldn’t be in a film from their native Asia, but as far as American approximations of kung-fu films goes, “Kingdom” reigns near the top.
Neither Chan nor Li is the film’s true star. That honor goes to the unappealing Michael Angarano (“Sky High”), playing teenaged Jason, an Asian film fanatic who runs afoul of Chinatown hoodlums. Through an incident too convoluted to explain here, Jason is transported back in time to the ancient China of the films he so loves.
His mission is to return a weapon to its rightful owner: the fabled Monkey King (played with infectious mischief by Li). Jason gains valuable assistance from an inebriated Lu Yan (Chan, goofing on his “Drunken Master” role), and villains abound, including a white-haired witch that recalls yet another Asian film trope. The wire-work choreography from Yuen Woo-Ping is, as expected, top-notch.
It’s obvious writer John Fusco (“Hidalgo”) and director Rob Minkoff (“The Haunted Mansion”) are fans of HK cinema, or at least knowledgeable enough to pull off a whimsical, big-budget action-fantasy that pays tribute to the genre without insulting it. And the more you’re a fan, the more you’ll enjoy this.
But the best part of “Kingdom” is its opening-credits sequence — a colorful, pop-art collage of images culled from the Seventies’ kung-fu craze. At least see it for that alone. —Rod Lott