the_forbidden_kingdom01Think of dream teams. For a music lover it might be a duet between Miles Davis and Billie Holiday. A reader might choose a book written by Norman Mailer and edited by Hunter S. Thompson. What if, however, Miles and Billie recorded Mary Had a Little Lamb or Norman and Hunter reimagined The Little Old Lady Who Lived in a Shoe? For sure they’d be entertaining, just not exactly what fans would expect.

In that spirit I’m guessing hard core martial arts aficionados may be scratching their heads at the new film The Forbidden Kingdom. One blogger suggested that “short of digging up Bruce and Brandon” the coupling of Jet Li and Jackie Chan for the movie is the biggest news Kung Fu fans could hope for. The pairing of the two Hong Kong superstars had been rumored for years but when Li announced his retirement from martial arts movies to produce a documentary about Buddhism it seemed like it would never happen. That is until Li had a change of heart and stepped back into the ring.

The resulting match-up probably isn’t exactly what fans might have hoped for. Sure, there’s plenty of action, amazing sets and costumes and a suitably confusing mythological story, but instead of a bloody, battle heavy epic the two superstars have produced a film aimed squarely at young adults. Luckily The Forbidden Kingdom has charms that should reach beyond the usual target audience for Kung Fu films.

The movie starts in present day Boston with Jason Tripitikas (24’s Michael Angarano), a Kung Fu crazy kid—he’s at the age where he is more interested in Bruce Lee movies than girls—buying bootleg Hong Kong movies at a Chinatown pawn shop. When the store is robbed by young thugs he escapes after being given an old-fashioned fighting stick by the wounded shopkeeper. Chased by the gang he flees to top of a tall building. Staff in hand he flies off the roof only to be magically transported back to ancient China. Turns out the stick once belonged to the Chinese sage and warrior the Monkey King and now Jason must join with two warrior teachers on a dangerous mission to learn the true meaning behind Kung Fu if he hopes to return the staff to the Monkey King and go back home to Boston.

Think of it as an antediluvian Karate Kid or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon for young adults. It’s a North Americanized version of a Hong Kong film with plenty of the Chinese mythology and pageantry of the classic martial arts films—there’s more references to Kung Fu movies here than in any two Tarantino films—filtered through a Hollywood sensibility to make it palatable for Western audiences. By and large it is successful. Some of the attempts at humor seem a little juvenile or out of place, but the battle sequences choreographed by famed action director Yuen Woo Ping—he choreographed the fights in Kill Bill, The Matrix and dozens of wild Hong Kong films—are top flight, if a little bloodless by the standards of the genre. They’re geared to entertain the eye of the younger members of the audience without the blood and guts that would earn it an R rating.

Best of all are the rowdy fight scenes between Chan and Li. There’s more wire work here than Chan’s fans will be used to—he’s always been a stickler for authenticity—but the inventiveness and style of these two old pros as they do battle is evident. Chan’s trademarked “drunken master” moves play nicely opposite Li’s more technical, precise steps. It makes for unpredictable and fun fight scenes.

The Forbidden Kingdom may not appeal to viewers looking for an authentic Hong Kong martial arts film, but should hold appeal for families looking for something fun and different.