Within the first few scenes of The Forbidden Kingdom, the martial-arts epic from director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) featuring Jackie Chan and Jet Li, the audience is confronted with a reminder of how prominent martial-arts films used to be in the American conscience.
Waking from a dream, the fledgling hero Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) is seen in a room filled with a myriad of posters including an oversized Bruce Lee; they're visual cues to the once fiercely followed kung-fu cinema genre. Unfortunately, Kingdom is a remarkably flaccid reflection of this bygone era. Minkoff attempts to mix the visceral bravado of 1980s kung-fu films with the CGI-enhanced gracefulness of the recent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero, but ends up with a limping action film that attempts much but achieves little.
The combination of Hong Kong cinema legends Jackie Chan and Jet Li was the focal point of the marketing hype behind Kingdom, but unfortunately that combination is only half as enjoyable as it should be. Coming off a string of poorly conceived films, Chan has been in need of a respectable performance, and Kingdom provides one. More restrained than usual, Chan exhibits surprising physicality for his age. He plays a drunken monk on a quest for immortality, and his career-rehabilitating role is the sole surprise in Kingdom.
It is Li, however, who falters most visibly. Li has been creating consistently enjoyable, if predicable, characters in recent years (most notably in the fierce Unleashed). However, what Li has before now honed, a steely presence matched with equally sparse and showy physical acting, is lost in Kingdom. Li smirks, stumbles and waggles his finger one too many times in his dual role as a white-robed monk, and also as the mythical Monkey King. The chemistry between these two martial-arts icons is surprisingly stilted, and while both provide reasonably well-executed scenes of physical technique, nothing is new or surprising. This is easily the most prevalent fault of the movie.
Minkoff, whose past credits include various lightweight Disney movies, does little to help his floundering actors. The direction in Kingdom is graceless when it isn't contrived, mimicking action sequences which have been crafted better in prior martial-arts films, such as Crouching Tiger. The film's plot slows to a crawl surprisingly often, and the final sequence, often the show-stopping moment in most kung-fu films, is filled with visual noise and little else.
As a film, Kingdom fails to remind viewers why Chinese cinema was so engaging to fans. Kingdom rests perplexingly on the promise of martial-arts icons Chan and Li and forgets to create a fulfilling story to wrap those two actors. There has not been a visible dearth of martial- arts films in recent years, and so it is all the more disappointing that Kingdom, the current iteration of the genre, is such an under-performing film.