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Where EAST meets the Northwest

KUNG FU DREAM TEAM. The Forbidden Kingdom stars Jackie Chan and Jet Li and features fight choreography from the legendary Yuen Woo Ping, whose work includes The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. (Image courtesy of Lionsgate)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #9 (March 3, 2009), page 16.

Kung fu dream team comes together for epic retelling of the Monkey King story

The Forbidden Kingdom

Directed by Rob Minkoff

Produced by Casey Silver

Distributed by Lionsgate

DVD, 104 minutes

By Toni Tabora-Roberts

It finally happened. Jet Li and Jackie Chan, two of the most popular and talented living kung fu stars in the world, are in one movie together. And itís actually pretty darn good.

The Forbidden Kingdom is an exciting, fun martial arts romp featuring Li and Chan as kung fu masters who take an American teenager under their wing to save the world. American screenwriter John Fusco scripted it based on the Chinese legend of the Monkey King. Rob Minkoff, known for his work on animated and childrenís films, directed.

Clearly geared for western audiences, the film is a bit like The Karate Kid meets The Wizard of Oz meets Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, mostly in the best possible ways.

The story follows an awkward Boston teen named Jason (Michael Angarano) who is obsessed with all things kung fu. Living vicariously through his martial arts heroes, in reality heís the kid whoís constantly battling with the local bullies. Jason frequents the local Chinese pawnshop, always on the hunt for bootleg movies. One day, in the midst of a dangerous encounter with the bullies, he stumbles upon a golden staff which transports him to ancient China.

Lucky for Jason, all the ancient Chinese speak to him in English. He meets Lu Yan (Jackie Chan), a drunk and a scholar whoís rumored to be one of the Eight Drunken Immortals of Chinese legend. Itís a throwback to Chanís early breakout role as the title character in Drunken Master. It seems Lu Yan must have booze to fight and even to survive. Upon seeing Jasonís golden staff, he tells Jason about the legend of the Monkey King (Jet Li).

Lu Yan reluctantly agrees to take Jason as his student to train him in order to fight the Jade Warlord (Colin Chou) and free the Monkey King. Along the way they meet Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), a beautiful and embittered young warrior out to seek revenge against the Jade Warlord for the killing of her family.

Completing their quartet (see The Wizard of Oz connection?) is the Silent Monk (also played by Jet Li) who also agrees to be Jasonís master teacher. The somewhat trite and comical training sequence ensues, a la Karate Kid.

At the helm of the fight choreography is the esteemed Yuen Woo Ping, who does yet another masterful job creating elegant and exhilarating fight scenes. The weakest performance in the film comes from Angarano as Jason. As the protagonist, he somehow never seems to grow out of his gawky shell. The real stars are Chan and Li, whose pairing is extremely satisfying. Itís a joy to see Li in a more playful role as the Monkey King and itís always fun to watch the deft comic timing of Chan.

The special two-disc edition DVD comes with all the wonderful extras youíd expect, including commentary by director Minkoff and writer Fusco, deleted scenes, bloopers, and several behind-the-scenes mini-documentaries. The most interesting ones are The Kung Fu Dream Team, which shows how the powerhouse pair came together, and Filming in Chinawood, which explores the mind-boggling expanse of Hengdian World Studios that house all manner of sets for The Forbidden Kingdom and many other Chinese films. Think Universal Studios, but Chinese and way bigger.

The Forbidden Kingdom is a good, fun view for any martial arts fan and even for those whoíve only seen Crouching Tiger. The film is polished, funny, action-packed, a bit cheesy, and worth a look.