Since the first spool of silver nitrate ran through a magic box to produce flickering wonder on a screen, movie makers have loved a good gimmick, whether the cowboy in "The Great Train Robbery" shooting a gun at the audience or "King Kong" swatting planes like flies atop the Empire State Building.
Also since cinema's early days, dollar-sign-eyed producers have trotted out the dog-and-pony-show gimmick "Together for the first time!" Take two bankable stars, throw 'em together and, voila, box office gold. Sometimes.
Too often these "powerhouse" pairings have resulted in ultimately mediocre movies with bad scripts and befuddled "stars" with no chemistry. For every Crawford/Davis, Pacino/DeNiro or Frankenstein/Wolfman success, there's a Three Stooges/Hercules, Affleck/J.Lo fiasco.
The latest celluloid twosome tempest in a teacup is "Forbidden Kingdom" featuring the formidable duo of martial arts greats Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Fans have been clamoring for this team-up and the question now is, was it worth the wait?
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To answer this I had to bring together for the first time ... the geek and the critic! Sitting like the proverbial angel and devil on my shoulder while viewing this film, the geek was in heaven initially, simply seeing the two together, while the critic was skeptical from the start. Unfortunately, this becomes the sticky wicket with "Forbidden Kingdom." Its ultimate success depends on whether the zowee factor of battling icons can supersede the tired script and lazy direction.
Jack (an innocuous but bland Michael Angarano) is a young man who is obsessed with martial arts movies and is a frequent customer of Old Hop (Chan, in old-age makeup). Old Hop runs a video/curio store in Jack's local Chinatown and is full of the usual chuckling mystical wisdom one expects from a kindly old shopkeeper named Old Hop.
One day while admiring an antique staff in the back, Jack is informed that it was once the property of the magical, mirthful Monkey King (Li). It seems the immortal trickster ran afoul of an evil warlord 500 years ago and wound up imprisoned in stone to await a "chosen one" to return the relic and free him. Do you see this one coming?
After local thugs strongarm Jack into helping them rob Old Hop, chaos ensues. Old Hop is shot and Jack manages to fall off a roof, magic staff in hand. He awakens in ancient China clueless and immediately set upon by soldiers. Saved in the nick of time by drunken traveler Lu Yan (Chan, again), Jack begins his quest to return the staff. For Jack is the "chosen one" of prophecy and has a lot to learn. Along the way these two meet Golden Sparrow (charming Yifei Liu), a "girl with a grudge," and a mystical Monk (Li, again) a "monk with a mission." This ragtag group must come together and train the reluctant "Karate Kid" to defeat the evil warlord and free the Monkey.
This crusty plot plays out with no surprises. There are a few comic moments and a fairly dazzling fight between Chan and Li at their first meeting but never any "House of Flying Daggers" or "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" jaw-dropping show-stoppers. The sets and effects are lackluster also given the budget, hinting that it may have taken more money than good will to bring Chan and Li together.
The chemistry between the two mega stars is easygoing but somehow restrained. Both known for choreographing their fights to ballet perfection, they appear hobbled here by the powers that be, as does the film. The blame must fall on the Americans involved. From the plodding direction by Rob Minkoff (his first effort since 2003's awful "Haunted Mansion"), to the stale script by John Fusco ("Hildago"), "Forbidden Kingdom" is a "magic staff" stolen by dolts who have no idea what to do with it.
Here's hoping there's a Chan/Li "together again for the first time!" As for "Kingdom," I must sadly report that the geek and the critic left the theater quietly underwhelmed.