Watching this week’s featured film is a little like watching the Three Tenors reunite at a karaoke bar. Or Pelé and Maradona in their prime showing off their famous footwork at a peewee soccer match. “The ForbiddenKingdom” has been hyped as the first onscreen pairing between Jet Li and Jackie Chan, arguably the giants of today’s Chinese martial arts stars, but this teenage movie just doesn’t seem a fitting backdrop for the considerable skills of its protagonists.
The film’s plot is familiar; it’s one part “Back to the Future,” one part “Karate Kid,” one part “The Wizard of Oz.” Jason, played by the underwhelming Michael Angarano, is a South Boston kid without a South Boston accent who is obsessed with kung fu. He frequents a local pawnshop run by the elderly Mr. Hop (Chan, in several pounds of makeup), who shows him an old stick weapon that is “awaiting its rightful owner.”
When Jason and Hop become the victims of local thugs later that night, Jason grabs the mysterious stick and is magically transported back to ancient China, where he soon runs into an unlikely band of allies, including Li and a younger Chan, who will help him try to return the magic object to the Monkey King, find the elixir of immortality, defeat the white-haired witch and allow the Jade Emperor to return to Earth.
Blah, blah. “Kingdom” piles cliché upon tired cliché, whether verbal, visual or both at once. When a voiceover recites familiar philosophy while Jason practices his new moves in the middle of a waterfall and a beautiful Chinese girl strums a lute nearby, it’s hard not to laugh, though it’s clear that’s not the effect the director intended. Maybe that’s the problem. The animated comedy “Kung Fu Panda,” a similar story about a fan-turned-warrior, played off some of the same clichés with a deft hand and selfawareness we don’t see here. This is a drama, of course, but that doesn’t excuse trite or just plain clumsy lines like “Not if I kill you first, orphan bitch.” (Seriously.)
When Li and Chan share the screen, there are some great moments. Chan’s younger character is a traveling scholar constantly sucking down wine, while Li plays the Monkey King and the Silent Monk (the dual characters for each contribute to the movie’s Oz-like feel). Their first meeting leads to a fight scene in an empty temple, well worth the wait. But when it ends, we return to Earth with a thud, and to the film’s plot with a sigh.
The movie gathers steam in the final scenes and even manages to end with a bit of a bang. Still, one leaves the theater feeling that director Rob Minkoff could have achieved much more, pleasing his adolescent target audience without dumbing down the story. When Chan leaps into the climactic battle at the warlord’s palace, he wears an expression of unbridled joy familiar to his fans and contagious to viewers.
It’s that kind of glee that “The Forbidden Kingdom” sorely lacks.