Those salivating at the thought of Jet Li and Jackie Chan going mano-a-mano are likely to be among the more disappointed customers for “The Forbidden Kingdom.” While top-billed duo do indeed occupy plenty of screen time, this is basically the latest version of that post-“Star Wars” fantasy concept in which only a middle-class white teenage boy can save the universe from, y’know, Evil. On its own terms, it’s a handsome albeit unexceptional juvenile adventure shot on some magnificent Chinese locations by d.p. Peter Pau. Biz should be healthy if unspectacular, with stars boosting Asian markets, and strong ancillary sales.
Script by John Fusco (“Young Guns,” “Hidalgo”) is loosely based on the classic Chinese epic “Journey to the West,” incorporating nods to various other mythological and kung-fu movie conventions.
Apart from framing segs, animator-turned-live-action helmer Rob Minkoff (“The Lion King,” “Stuart Little,” “The Haunted Mansion”) shot exterior and studio sequences entirely in China. Yet the cliche-ridden opening heralds this as a formulaic view of the exotic East through Western pop-culture-trained eyes — specifically those of Jason (Michael Angarano), a Boston teen enamored with kung-fu movies.
He buys bootleg DVDs at the Chinatown pawnshop of Old Hop (a prosthetically aged Chan), and happens to spy an ornate golden staff in a back room. Later, school bullies led by Lupo (Morgan Benoit) force Jason back to the pawnshop for a robbery attempt that leaves Old Hop shot. While grasping the staff, Jason is magically whisked away, waking up inexplicably in what appears to be an ancient Chinese farming village that’s promptly ransacked by soldiers of the tyrannical Jade Warlord (Collin Chou).
Jason is captured, then rescued by Lu Yan (Chan), an inebriated passerby whose drunk-fu nonetheless foils a passel of armed men. The two repair to a teahouse, where Lu Yan explains the Yank lad must be “the seeker” destined to fulfill a prophecy by returning the golden staff to its owner, the Monkey King (Li), trapped in stone centuries ago by his likewise immortal foe, the Jade Warlord.
Attacked again, the duo escape and are joined by Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), an orphan determined to avenge her parents’ murder by the Jade Army. Then white-clad Silent Monk (Li) turns up and endures a lengthy temple fight with Lu Yan before it’s discovered he’s on their side.
Now Jason has two masters — poker-faced monk and wine-scarfing poet — to pummel his hitherto nonexistent fighting skills into shape.
Among the perils the quartet face are crossing a desert and combating the Warlord’s white-haired witch ally Ni Chang (Li Bing Bing). Climax takes place at the Jade Palace, amid a riot of CGI effects and Woo-Ping Yuen’s fight choreography. Still, there’s that Boston bully to be dealt with, in a groan-inducing epilogue.
While a professed Chinese cultural enthusiast and advanced martial-arts student himself, scenarist Fusco plays safe in multiplex terms, not reinventing or paying witty homage (a la “Kill Bill”) to Hong Kong action conventions so much as bending them to fit routine Hollywood blueprints.
This material — particularly its generic dialogue — doesn’t give the thesps much chance to shine past sheer physical exertion and iconic presences. While Chan and Li bring their accumulated charisma to the table, pic won’t be remembered as more than a paycheck highlight for either of them. If the goal was to cast an all-American lead as ordinary as possible, Angarano (seen to much better advantage in indie drama “Snow Angels”) fits the bill to a fault, despite his eventual athletic prowess.
On the upside, “The Forbidden Kingdom” is brisk and colorfully realized, with excellent contribs not only from Pau’s handsome widescreen lensing and the impressive Mainland sites deployed but also from Bill Brzeski’s splendid production design and Shirley Chan’s costumes.