"The Forbidden Kingdom" (PG-13)
2 stars out of 4
Since the death of Bruce Lee in 1973, the only two martial arts "actors" that have gotten anywhere close to achieving his level of popularity and credibility with American audiences are Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
In "The Forbidden Kingdom," Chan and Li appear together for the first time, and for those looking for major fireworks, lower your expectations. They share a single fight scene and it ends in a draw, which is fitting considering the generally low aspirations of the movie.
Although based in part on the ancient Chinese tome "Journey to the West," the movie feels more like a slapped together pastiche of "The Wizard of Oz," "The Karate Kid" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. There are a handful of deaths in the movie, but there is no gore and all the Chinese characters speak broken English. In other words, it's safely handcrafted for American audiences and not the kind of picture dedicated martial arts fans are likely to embrace.
Shia LaBeouf's separated-at-birth twin Michael Angarano stars as Jason, a friendless Boston teen obsessed with old kung fu movies and ancient Asian artifacts. After a skirmish at the store Jason frequents leaves its owner (Chan in old man makeup) near death, Jason grabs a magical golden staff and travels back in time to China.
Upon arrival, Jason meets Lu Yan (Chan again looking Rastafarian), a gypsy sort who grudgingly acts as Jason's bodyguard and tour guide. They must travel great distances through forests and deserts and tussle with entire armies before reaching their destination. Along the way they join up with musician Golden Sparrow (pop singer Yifei Liu) and Lan Chei He (Li), a mostly silent warrior. The rightful owner of the staff is the Monkey King (Li again looking very hairy) who is presently encased in stone, waiting to be freed.
Because it is technically a fantasy, we can buy the fact that many of the characters can fly, but this device - first used in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" - is getting very thread worn. Pit this alongside the lack of blood or real violence and you get a movie with a harmless, cartoon-like feel. It all feels very watered down.
The "Chan vs. Li" argument has been settled, but not in the way martial arts followers might have wanted. Chan smiles with greater frequency and is afforded the luxury of more lines of dialogue. He has simply been coached, managed and tutored better than Li.
In the end, none of it matters. The fight scenes are over-choreographed. The acting is forced and calculated. The lines between good and evil are too blurred and mean little. This is mass-merchandised martial arts boiled down to its most basic and elementary form. There are no winners or losers; just dissatisfied viewers stuck in the middle.
Bruce Lee would be very disappointed. (Lionsgate)