Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom ( Jet lee , Jackie Chan )

Chinese martial-arts epics are often filled with outsized, colorful stock characters, echoes of a long tradition of storytelling. In the American-made "The Forbidden Kingdom," those stock characters include the Monkey King and the Jade Emperor of Chinese legend, and the White-Haired Witch and Drunken Master, from two popular Hong Kong kung-fu film series. By blowing these old legends up to operatic proportions, "Kingdom" shoots for action drama on a grand scale.

But "Kingdom" also tries to pull the same stunt with American stock characters, and that's where it falls on its face. The Good-Hearted Loser Who Learns To Stand Up For Himself and The Leather-Jacketed Sneering Bully are just as much American tropes as the evil warlord with a vast army is a Chinese standard. But the exaggerated comedy and big tonal shifts of a martial-arts epic flounder on the modern-day streets of Boston.

"Sky High" lead Michael Angarano stars as Jason Tripitikas, a Boston teenager whose obsession with kung-fu classics leads him to hang out in a Chinatown pawn shop with an ancient Chinese man played by martial-arts legend Jackie Chan, under a ton of latex wrinkles. After a snarling greaser and his gang, mysteriously left over from the '50s, force Jason to help them rob the shop, he takes a spill while clutching a magical staff and wakes up in ancient China.

As the prophesied "seeker" who has traveled "through the gate of no gate," Jason must get the staff back to the Monkey King (martial-arts legend Jet Li, under a ton of facial fur), an immortal warrior turned to stone by an evil warlord. He gets assists from a ragtag group of heroes: drunken master Lu Yan (Chan again), a nameless monk (Li again), and a beautiful revenge-driven woman (Liu Yifei).

"Forbidden City" marks Li and Chan's long-anticipated first onscreen pairing, which unfortunately comes late in their careers; both are talking retirement, and their best fighting years have clearly passed. Still, they're both game, charismatic veterans, backed by some equally world-class off-screen talent: "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" cinematographer, Peter Pau, and its fight choreographer, Woo-Ping Yuen. Once the film finally puts all these justly revered figures in their element, with Li and Chan battling for supremacy in a crumbling shrine, the film becomes magical, and it rarely lets up from that moment onward.

Unfortunately, it's a long, eye-rolling haul to get there, hampered by lurching exposition and hammy setup. Director Rob Minkoff (who helmed the "Stuart Little" movies) plays up the slapstick, which works wonderfully when Chan is staggering around as the Drunken Master, or when Chan and Li's characters are playing tug-of-war over who will train Jason to fight. But the first quarter of the film is slow-moving, clumsy parody, and it takes a great deal of gorgeous Chinese scenery to wash away the taste of overcooked cheese.

Still, once the film finally immerses itself fully in grand settings and snappy battles, and the size of the conflict grows to meet the outsized acting, "Forbidden Kingdom" finds its feet as half of a solid action movie. It's perhaps best suited for genre vets who can be satisfied with spot-the-reference games and Chan and Li's chemistry, or for undiscriminating kids who'll enjoy the "Karate Kid" vibe. But it's less a culmination of Li and Chan's careers than a passable footnote to better things.

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