Cliché title, fun movie.
After a kung fu film fan named Jason (Michael Angarano) is forced to use his friendship to a Chinatown shopkeeper and allow a local gang to rob the store, an accident propels both him and an ancient staff into a parallel world of Chinese mythology and Kung-Fu masters. Jason quickly acquires both friends and enemies in this mystical land: a drunken immortal (Jackie Chan), a silent monk (Jet Li), an orphan warrior (Yifei Liu), and a white-haired assassin (Bingbing Li). The only chance for Jason to return home, of course, is to fulfill an ancient prophecy by freeing an immortal champion called the Monkey King (Jet Li again) and ensure the defeat of the oppressive Jade Emperor (Deshun Wang), but only if he lives long enough (and learns enough kung fu) to do so.
The film starts off The Never-Ending Story and ends The Karate Kid, but everything in between is a premium wire-fu fantasy choreographed by Wo Ping (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). With an epic tale featuring iconic archetypes each with just enough back story to make them interesting, the only downside of this PG-13 feature is that it isn’t the pilot for a television series. There are so many people we’d like to know more about, and there’s probably a separate film in the telling for each one. This story, however, is centered on the American kung fu film fan who finds himself in the middle of one and knows nothing about real fighting.
The biggest draw, however, is neither the American main character nor the story. The epic face-off of Jackie Chan and Jet Li is something both of their fans have been begging for for years, and they’re still not too old to make it look good. Also working against the pair is their individual styles of films that has kept them artistically apart, but the story caters well to both actors’ demeanors. Interestingly, the story is easily more of a Jackie Chan flavor of film, but Jet Li actually trumps him with his portrayal of the happy-go-lucky, devil-may-care Monkey King opposite his dual role as the typical dour and moody Silent Monk. Not to be outdone, however, American actor Michael Angarano does his fair share to look like a martial arts student in need of some quick training and pulls it off well enough in the fights to passably get by.
From sweeping landscapes and towering mountains, the “forbidden kingdom” itself is stalked with all the usual kung fu trappings: Bamboo forests, seedy taverns, hidden temples, and impenetrable strongholds. Actresses Yifei Liu and Bingbing Li hold their own as warriors but are mostly secondary characters to the boys’ playtime and given the least amount of background, which is too bad because the White-Haired Assassin doesn’t get enough screen time before the final battle. There are also enough bloodless deaths (hence the PG-13 rating) to ward off taking little kids to watch the film, but otherwise it makes for an enjoyable family feature with a good message.
(a three skull recommendation out of four)