Jet Li and Jackie Chan on screen together for the first time generate entertaining chopsocky mayhem in this light-hearted actioner fantasy from director Rob Minkoff and writer John Fusco. Get a big bucket of popcorn, add liberal amounts of salt and butter flavor, and just enjoy this fairytale story that's short on logic but long on fun and mind-blowing, kick-ass artistry between Li and Chan.
From the opening over-the-top credit roll parading martial arts movie posters in all their pulp-saturated color glory, highlighted by upbeat, heart-thumping music, to the whimsical, "so bad it's charming" wirework of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King's aerial combat on a mountain top against the Jade soldiers sent by the evil Jade Emperor (played by Collin Chou with suitable evilness), this movie doesn't take itself too seriously, but relishes the frenetic kung fu energy generated by Li and Chan as part homage to the countless kick-block-punch-jump-fly movies that have brightened up many a Saturday matinée.
Young Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano), martial arts dreamer and fanatical fan, visits his favorite hookup for bootleg, undubbed kung fu films, a pawn shop run by an incredibly old Chinese gentleman with a penchant for drinking a lot and keeping the golden Jingu Bang, the Monkey King's magical fighting staff, in his back room. Telling young Jason the staff needs to be returned to its owner, the story is set and put into action when Jason is bullied by the neighborhood bad boys to rob the pawn shop. The staff and Jason connect big time, sending him through the gate that has no gate to an ancient and mystical China, complete with understandable natives after he meets up with Jackie Chan, who promptly slaps some language speaking skills into Jason's head when Chan tells him to pay attention and listen.
The hunt is on when the Jade Emperor gets wind the Monkey King's staff is back in action. Said fighting staff would bring the Monkey King back to life, thereby ending the Jade Emperor's continued gloating over his despotic ways.
Before Jason can take on the arduous and dangerous task of returning the staff, he must learn the ways of the force, which, in this case, means dealing with two bickering martial arts masters and their differing styles. Chan's Drunken Master-styled moves come up against Li's precision strikes early on in a lively exchange between the two as each attempts to claim ownership of the staff. One humorous bit has Chan and Li disagreeing on the best technique for Jason to use, leading to humor for us and frustration for him.
Villainy is well represented with Jade Emperor's witchy main squeeze, the iridescent Bingbing Li, swinging her long white tresses to bedevil Chan and clan as they battle her nefarious antics, the Jade Emperor's soldiers who keep showing up in annoyingly larger numbers, and Jason's lack of chi-confidence in being able to best the overwhelming odds. The mood and pacing throughout fits the PG-13 rating well, and satisfies with its simple but pleasing tale of positive thinking surmounting any obstacle. Liberal use of eye-pleasing cinematography, adequate CGI (with a matte painting tossed in here and there), and colorful costumery add to the overall above average production values for this slugfest that first pits Li against Chan, then both against the Jade Emperor. Sideline love interest between Jason and comely Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu) provides requisite pathos and secondary story of vengeance fulfillment.
For fans of period-piece martial arts action and straightforward characters, The Forbidden Kingdom is a welcome entry in the summertime sweepstakes for their movie-going dollars. For fans of Jet Li and Jackie Chan, it's a must-see first time collaboration between two genre greats whose consummate skill with a numbing number of kung fu styles is sharply choreographed and recorded for posterity in this minor gem of good versus evil, and nebbish boy makes good while saving the kingdom.