[Screen It]

(2008) (Jackie Chan, Jet Li) (PG-13)

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Action/Adventure: With the aid of various martial arts fighters, a South Boston teen finds himself in ancient China where he tries to return a mystical staff to its owner.
Jason Tripitikas (MICHAEL ANGARANO) is a normal teen growing up in South Boston and fan of all martial arts films. His favorite thing is looking for the latest titles in the Lu Yan Pawn Shop run by the elderly Old Hop (JACKIE CHAN) where he also finds an ancient staff.

Yet, his obsession with such fighting hasn't transferred to the real world, meaning he must put up with being physically intimidated by the likes of Lupo (MORGAN BENOIT) and his gang of bullies. That comes to a head when they force Jason to escort them to the pawn shop where Lupo ends up shooting Old Hop who tells Jason he must deliver that staff to its owner.

Not knowing what that means, he flees, with Lupo and his thugs in hot pursuit, and ends up falling off a roof. When he comes to, he finds to his shock that he's in ancient China, surrounded by armed soldiers. Even more surprising is that a middle-aged warrior, Lu Yan (JACKIE CHAN), manages to save him despite being intoxicated, and then informs Jason of the history of the mystic staff.

It seems that it once belonged to the Monkey King (JET LI), a mischievously playful but formidable warrior who was tricked by the Jade Warlord (COLLIN CHOU) during a battle. As a result, the Monkey King was turned into a stone statue, but not before sending his staff off into the distance.

Now, 500 years later, the Jade Warlord is preparing to allow the witch Ni Chang (BING BING LI) to join him in immortality, but not before she returns the staff to him. He's not alone in desiring it, however, as The Silent Monk, a.k.a. Lan Cae He (JET LI), has long been searching for it. Accordingly, he soon joins Jason and Lu Yan on their quest, as does a young woman by the name of Golden Sparrow (YIFEI LIU) who wants to avenge her parents' deaths at the hands of Jade Warlord's men.

From that point on, the unlikely quartet tries to return the staff to the Monkey King, all while contending with the Jade Warlord, Ni Chang, and a host of warriors who all want to catch and stop them.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
While there are many legitimate complaints that can be leveled against video games, one of the more salient ones is that playing them runs the risk of lessening children's imagination. Of course, the same was probably said about movies when they arrived on the scene and supplanted book reading as many a child's source of entertainment. Even so, and due to their very passive nature, they still got kids acting out what they saw and putting their own, imaginative spin on such material.

Nowadays, however, they can vicariously experience the same via those video and computer games, especially with interactive controls that provide motion and tactile feedback, although such play is usually limited to what some team of programmers have put into such offerings.

The point of all of this is what effect such pre-programmed, first-person gaming has on "old school" escapism, namely that of fantasizing via vicarious experiences of literary and/or cinematic characters. For instance, in the era prior to silicon-based entertainment, an offering such as "The Forbidden Kingdom" probably would have been hot stuff, especially for kids enamored with martial arts flicks of old.

After all, it features a teenage protagonist (Michael Angarano) of the same mindset who, in the tradition of Dorothy whisked away to Oz, ends up in a literal and figurative foreign land (Ancient China) where he becomes the central figure in a major crisis. With the help of various outsiders (Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Yifei Liu standing in for the Oz and other such tale archetype characters), he learns the lay of the land as well as his beloved Asian combat methods, and takes on the villains (Collin Chou and Bing Bing Li, with the latter playing, natch, a witch).

Perhaps sensing that potential disconnect with the target audience for this adolescent fantasy tale, the filmmakers -- director Rob Minkoff and screenwriter John Fusco -- have put more of their focus on and get the best results from another old cinematic staple -- the battle of the all-stars.

While both Li and particularly Chan are well past their prime performance years (a sad but true fact, particularly for the latter who was unbelievably amazing in his younger, more limber, and one presumes, less arthritic days), it's still a blast watching the two.

Whether battling each other, joining forces to do the same against others, or disagreeing about the best way to train their young protégé, the two martial arts stars have a terrific chemistry together. And despite some wire-fighting (that allows for gravity and realism defying moves) and what sometimes possibly looks like a stunt double for Chan, their scenes together are highly entertaining.

All of which makes the rest of the film, where they're either absent or in the background, seem all the more blasé. As in most such genre pics, the villains are more afterthought than anything else, and while Bing Bing Li gets some fun use out of her long blonde locks, Chou isn't much more than standard-issue. Angarano fares a bit better, but obviously pales in comparison to his legendary co-stars. Little bits of humor and comic relief do help him out, but I would have preferred to have seen a more fleshed out character and charismatic performance to help better balance the pic.

Li gets a dual role part, playing both the stoic archetype he usually embodies as well as a mischievous martial arts master known as the Monkey King, and he's obviously having fun doing the latter. Chan is pretty much relegated to playing a perpetually intoxicated wise man, and while that allows him to do more of his trademark, Keaton meets Chaplin limber moves, the repetitive shtick does begin to wear a bit thin after a while.

That somewhat holds true for the film in general as it tries to balance various genres, tones, and various flat moments scattered here and there. But when its stars are doing their thing, both physically and personality-wise (neither of which is in enough supply), the pic becomes a figurative and literal kick to behold. Clearly nothing great but fairly easy to watch even if it seems redundant in today's first-person active video games, "The Forbidden Kingdom" rates as a 5 out of 10.

Reviewed April 9, 2008 / Posted April 18, 2008

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