Enter the Southie
So a martial-arts-mad teen from South Boston goes into a Chinatown pawn shop, see. It’s pretty much the same little-bit-scary, little-bit-cool, loaded-with-interesting-old-junk Chinatown pawn shop that Hoyt Axton went into in Gremlins and came out with the cute, cuddly Mogwai, so you know some weird shit is in the offing. And sure enough if Jason Tripitikas, a sweet, soulful nerd, doesn’t come out with a staff. Not just any staff: an ancient legendary Chinese staff. Sure, it looks kinda like just a big stick, maybe a broom handle or something, but it’s magic.
Uh huh. ’Course it is. But dang if the thing doesn’t send Jason back in time and across dreamy landscapes and smack into the middle of a grand quest in medieval China to return that staff, which turns out to really be fabled and mystical and all, to someone called the Monkey King. Who’s immortal. And he can fly. And he looks like Jet Li with blond monkey facial hair. Hilarious.
No, seriously, it is. Hilarious, that is. And cheeky and cheery and so popcorn-a-licious a fantasy historical action comedy that you want to stand up and cheer. In the endless parade of wannabe deep-and-meaningful pseudomythic would-be hero’s-journey adventure flicks, here’s one that finally feels fresh and original and its own thoroughly delightful self. For even as it draws on the same archetypcal roots as Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings, as well as a mishmash of actual ancient Chinese legends, it’s not trying to get away with anything: it’s not trying to pretend it’s not going down a road that’s already well traveled. But it’s so breezy and laid-back in how it follows that road that even when it’s throwing a deliberate nod to its predecessors — there’s a cantina scene! and it’s very funny — it’s never presumptuous and it’s always witty and winking.
Actually, hey: forget Star Wars. The Forbidden Kingdom is The Wizard of Oz with kung-fu, a journey to a magical land that may exist only in Jason’s imagination. He doesn’t speak medieval Chinese, but fortunately for him, everyone in medieval China appears to speak English… such as Jackie Chan’s Lu Yan, a drunken itinerant martial arts master (how many of those can possibly be wandering around?) who takes poor displaced Jason under his wing. Chan’s a bit Scarecrowish, in fact, which would make Jet Li (in a dual role) as the Silent Monk — another apparently itinerant martial arts master, though a sober one — something like the Tin Man. Though they’re actually both kinda like Obi-Wan Kenobi, who take it in turns to teach Jason better kung-fu than he’s learned from watching old Bruce Lee movies. There’s no Cowardly Lion, but there is a kick-ass kung-fu chick called Golden Sparrow (played by the smoothly dangerous Liu Yifei), who’s got a bone to pick with the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou: Jet Li’s Fearless, The Matrix Revolutions), whom they’re all off to find because he’s the one holding the Monkey King captive… a Monkey King who can only be freed once his staff is returned to him. And yes: the Monkey King can fly.
Director Rob Minkoff (The Haunted Mansion, Stuart Little 2), working from a script by John Fusco (Hidalgo, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron), juggles it all so wonderfully blithely: the law-of-physics-defying combat, the occasionally stunning dramatic moments, the humor, even the extremely tentative romance just hinting at blossoming between Jason and Golden Sparrow. The clippety-clip of the pace never lets up, and the movie’s over before you realize you don’t want it to be. But the most surprising thing about The Forbidden Kingdom is that the most surprising thing isn’t the chance to witness the first pairing of screen legends Chan (Rush Hour 3, Around the World in 80 Days) and Li (Jet Li’s Fearless, Unleashed) — they’re so comfortable together that it seems that, surely, they’ve worked together before.
No, the big revelation here is 20-year-old Michael Angarano as Jason, who’s been kicking around in smaller movies for a while now (see Sky High for a hoot) and steals this one with his under-the-radar charm and easy everyguy amiability. “How good is your kung fu?” Lu Yan asks Jason just after they meet. By the end of the movie, it’s clear that Angarano’s kung-fu is very good indeed.