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Reel Critic:

Martial arts given odd touch of magic

April 23, 2008|By Bob Harris

Early in “The Forbidden Kingdom,” a character named The Monkey King leaps, whirls and flies between heavenly mountains, battling an assortment of kung fu warriors. If that sentence made your eyes roll, then I guarantee this is not the movie for you. Anyone who thought — “Hey, kung fu Monkey King? Cool!” By all means, read on.

This is a martial arts and magic movie. Punches are thrown, spells are cast, and it’s not unusual to see a plucked hair transform into a lifesaving doppelganger.

The movie opens in ancient China with the Monkey King losing his magical power staff after a whirlwind battle with the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou). Through sorcery, the Warlord transforms the now defenseless Monkey King into a statue. The staff turns up in a present-day Boston pawn shop run by Old Hop.


During a robbery, local boy and movie-mad martial arts fan Jason (Michael Angarano) flees with the staff. He suffers a nasty tumble and wakes up in ancient China. No, really.

Soon, everyone is leaping and kicking across the screen, so it all makes perfect sense. Jason meets Lu Yan, the Silent Monk and the revenge-seeking Golden Sparrow (Yifei Lui).

They decide they must team up to battle the nefarious Jade Warlord and his minions to free the Monkey King.

“The Forbidden Kingdom,” an American production shot in China, features the very first on-screen appearance together of Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Each is cast perfectly to character type with Li as both the graceful, stoic Silent Monk and wild-eyed acrobatic Monkey King. Chan plays two roles as well, the comical drunken master, Lu Yan and wise Old Hop.

These martial arts legends are so quick and inventive in hurricane-force action sequences that cliché demands they be described as pure poetry in destructive motion. Directed by Rob Minkoff with a very knowing script by John Fusco, the movie features a number of eye-warping, high-flying, martial arts sequences that, unfortunately, are weighed down by the American parts of the tale.

This is a coming-of-age story cloaked with a classic kung fu fable.

Put upon, lonely, urban kid wakes up in a dreamland where he is the final key in a puzzle to restore order in the world. Basically, “The Forbidden Kingdom” is “The Karate Kid” meets “The Wizard of Oz.”

But, the movie continually gets bogged down when the focus shifts to Jason.

Compared to the wildly colorful martial arts characters, the often befuddled Jason is not that compelling. What is lithe and graceful becomes clumsy in both action and language when the kid is, too often, the focus, thus relegating Li and Chan to supporting players.

The exotic Chinese locations featured with great action choreographed by Woo-Ping Yuen (“The Matrix” and “Kill Bill”) makes “The Forbidden Kingdom” a must-see for any action movie aficionado. While it gets much right, the action, locations and top-notch Asian martial arts cast, the leaden Americanized elements nearly sink a movie filled, at times, with boundless fun.

 BOB HARRIS has been hooked on movies since he was 13 when his brother got a job in a multiplex and Bob saw all the movies he wanted for free.

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