The Forbidden Kingdom is based on the Chinese legend of the Monkey King. Screenwriter John Fusco, a martial arts enthusiast, began the script as a bedtime story for his 11-year-old son. His inspiration, Journey to the West, a classic Chinese epic novel, was too dense, so Fusco made up a story of time travel that was more relatable.
The film follows Jason (Michael Angarano), a kung fu fanatic who buys bootleg DVDs at the Chinatown pawnshop of Old Hop (a prosthetically aged Chan who endured 10 hours of makeup), owner of a mysterious golden staff.
When school bullies force Jason back to the pawnshop for a robbery attempt, the staff magically transports Jason through time to ancient China where the evil Jade Warlord (a heavily eye shadowed Collin Chou) is wrecking havoc. With the help of a drunken kung fu master (Chan) and the Silent Monk (Li), Jason must return the staff to its rightful owner, the Monkey King, who is imprisoned in stone by the Warlord.
Visually, it’s beautiful, enrapturing, exciting and unique. It’s like the audience has been sucked into a Chinese Maxfield Parrish painting where people roundhouse kick. Director Rob Minkoff, whose previous work includes Stuart Little and The Lion King, had no experience with anything like this, although he proudly points out, “if you watch the end of The Lion King, Rafiki does some stick form.”
Is it formulaic? Yes. (Think The Neverending Story with a pawnshop instead of a bookstore.) But as soon as the fight sequences start, the film starts, and it’s immensely enjoyable.
There’s classic Jackie Chan banter mixed with his talent for performing drunken fist kung fu (his break through role was in Drunken Master) and Jet Li’s stoic warmth. Sadly there’s no gratuitous booty shot of Li like in Hero (For those with morbid curiosity, you can see Chan’s butt in Rush Hour 2, but there’s no comparison.), but he lends a weight to the film that’s unmistakable. Together, the chemistry and skill is electrifying.
When Li and Chan shot their first fight sequence, “it was seamless,” says Chan. “With most people, you have to practice. But with Jet, we both looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do it’. And we did it. The first two takes were so fast they said, ‘Good, but can you guys slow down, or we’ll have to use slow motion.’”
He chuckles, “I wanted to show off. He wanted to show off.”
In the end, Chan says the fighting was “comfortable.”
For the audience, it’s spellbinding. This film combines two of the greatest martial artists of our time and offers them a playground to showcase their talents.
One stand out scene pits Li and Chan against each other, using Angarano as their puppet as they vie for supremacy. It’s incredibly funny and awe-inspiringly historic.
The Forbidden Kingdom releases in theaters April 18.