The new Hong-Kong-via-Hollywood martial-arts action fantasy film The Forbidden Kingdom is a little bit like a meal at a Chinese-American buffet, the kind with Hunan this, Szechwan that, chicken wings and Jell-O: You've tasted its elements before, and when it's all on your plate, the sauces tend to run tastily into one another.
The premise is simple enough in a culture of hybrid plots. The magical-cum-whimsical Monkey King (Jet Li) tosses his powerful golden bo staff into another world (ours) when the Jade Emperor turns him to stone. It shows up in a store in Boston's Chinatown, where Old Hop (Jackie Chan) playfully humors Jason (Michael Angarano), a scrawny kid who dreams about kung-fu fighting. ("Crouching tiger, spanking monkey," Old Hop calls Jason's naïve ambition.)
One day, when some bullies force Jason to help them rob Old Hop's store, he ends up on the roof with the bo staff in his hand. The staff sweeps him off the roof -- and into the ancient world from whence it came. There, he meets Lu Yan (Chan again), the Popeye of martial arts, only his spinach is wine. They're joined by a Monk (Li again) and a girl (fierce and beautiful, of course) in their quest to return the staff to the Monkey King, at which point Jason can return to no-place-like-home.
Call this Amazing Stories meets hidden dragons somewhere on the Yellow Brick Road. Is it all a dream for Jason? He never clicks his heels, but when he returns to "reality," he still has that scar on his cheek from the whip of the evil temptress, and, mysteriously, he actually can do kung fu, just like his mentors taught him.
I suppose it's only polite to embrace convention and attribute this "film" to its director, Rob Minkoff (Stuart Little). But really, it's all in the fight choreography, which is DSL-swift and far too bloodless for a sado-geek like Quentin Tarantino. It's difficult but not impossible to tell where the actors leave off and technology begins. No matter: It's clear that Chan -- who plays his role with a hapless exuberance, and with tattered English that again reminds us he's an export and not an ex-pat -- still has the fight stuff.
As a movie star, Chan is broken in, like that pair of sneakers I just can't throw away. Angarano, on the other hand, is pretty much right out of the box, a sort of Shia LaBoeuf Lite. He was a cute kid on TV's Will & Grace, and now he's a very slightly homely young adult. That's OK, because in a business where looks can kill, he has an effortless affability that should allow him to move between serious films (like the recent Snow Angels) and roles in Hollywood entertainments like this one. In English and Mandarin, with occasional subtitles.
- An army of three: Jet Li, Michael Angarano and Jackie Chan