The Forbidden Kingdom, the spectacular new martial-arts movie that teams Jackie Chan with Jet Li for the first time, has set an imposing standard for the rest of the comic-book-hero demolition derbies waiting to emerge from their post-production cocoon, as the winter and spring of Juno becomes the summer of Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. Director Rob Minkoff has crafted the first great action flick of the year, the kind of film you want to roll up and stick in your back pocket so you can whip it out and whap action-movie naysayers on the nose.
Michael Angarano plays Jason Tripitikas, a South Boston nerd who accidentally ticks off some menacing greasers and is forced to help them rob the Chinatown curio shop where Jason gets all his kung-fu bootleg DVDs. During a clumsy attempt at self-defense and retreat, Jason falls off the roof of a building. When he wakes up, he's in China's Middle Kingdom. Nobody knows what to do with his dollar bills, and nobody seems to speak any English.
The Forbidden Kingdom's present-day framing sequences are slack, forgettable, and, compared to the playful tone of the rest of the film, weirdly cruel. But that's just fine: The "dream" part of this "it was all just a dream — or was it?" story soars. Jason soon meets philosopher-wino and drunken master Lu Yan (Chan, reprising one of his cherished Hong Kong roles), who informs him that Jason's staff once belonged to the immortal Monkey King (Li). Before he can return to the present day, Jason must fulfill the prophecy and return the staff to its rightful owner.
As Lu Yan, Chan finally shows a gentler, less hyperactive side of his comic persona. I've always suspected that he could be more than the human pinball of his numerous Hong Kong films or the walking malaprop of the Rush Hour series. But nobody ever gave him a chance to do anything more than bounce off walls, duck under projectiles, and talk jive with Chris Tucker. Chan's graceful performance, which embodies the benevolent, multicultural soul of Asian action films, holds the whole ridiculous enterprise together. He's a winking presence throughout who believes too strongly in the film's jokey Indiana Jones premise to undermine it.
Plus, at 54, Chan can still kick some ass. Endlessly clever and bawdy martial-arts choreographer Wo-Ping Yuen, whose outlandish, gravity-defying gymnastics drove Stephen Chow's 2005 populist masterpiece Kung Fu Hustle, stages his fight scenes as moral inquiries and personality tests. Lu Yan's initial temple encounter with Jet Li's Silent Monk and the grandly edited finale that features palace guards, little Buddhists, lava pits, and a white-haired, whip-wielding witch are as much about the attitudes the characters carry into combat as they are about the combat itself. Minkoff blends these big brawls with images of surprising depth and complexity: The battle among the blossoming trees or the Monkey King's explosive return to life are visual delights of force, color, and motion.
The Forbidden Kingdom