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Originally published Friday, April 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Movie review

"Forbidden Kingdom": Martial-arts titans Jet Li and Jackie Chan join forces

Jackie Chan and Jet Li join for the first time in the cheesy but visually striking "Forbidden Kingdom" MOVIE REVIEW Martial-arts fans, rejoice...

Seattle Times staff reporter

Movie review 2.5 stars

"The Forbidden Kingdom," with Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Michael Angarano. Directed by Rob Minkoff and written by John Fusco. 113 minutes. Rated PG-13 for sequences of martial-arts action and some violence. Several theaters.

Martial-arts fans, rejoice ... if you're 13.

Jet Li and Jackie Chan, the genre's two greatest living stars, finally face off onscreen. But it's essentially a kids' movie, and a cheesy one, even if it does look terrific.

If only they could have gone toe-to-toe 10 or 20 years ago. But that's a different fantasy. The one at hand involves a boy named Jason (Michael Angarano, who looks like the love child of Shia LaBeouf and Steve Guttenberg) obsessed with kung fu flicks. (According to IMDb trivia, he was one of the three finalists to play young Anakin Skywalker in that miserable "Phantom Menace" movie. Way to dodge a bullet, kid.)

Anyhow, young LaGute gets worked over by a group of sneering bullies fresh out of Stereotypeland who force him to help knock over his elderly pal's (Chan) pawn shop. After he promises the wounded old man to return an ancient staff to its rightful owner, the kid's magically transported to ancient China — where most people happen to speak English and the CGI is top-notch.

Jason needs to get the staff to a Monkey King (Li) imprisoned in stone by the evil Jade Warlord (Collin Chou, who played Seraph in the final two "Matrix" movies — a role Li famously turned down). He gets help from a drunken master (Chan) and a silent monk (also Li), who teach him martial arts on their journey. At the risk of displaying a foolish consistency, the kid learns it all in what seems like a few days.

Also in their posse: the beautiful dart-wielding Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei), who's obsessed with revenge and refers to herself in the third person. In pursuit, a witch (Li Bing Bing) with magic white hair and lots of minions.

Devotees who want to see Chan and Li really throw down have to settle for the flying wire-work (and heavily edited) type of wuxia action seen in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" — also choreographed by the legendary Yuen Wo Ping. But Chan's in his mid-50s, and that ship has sailed. Their initial Battle of Titans unfolds like a typical superhero meeting (which is what wuxia movies are): a huge brawl over a misunderstanding before they team up.

Among the other entertaining dust-ups is a hilariously choreographed one in which Chan clears out a restaurant full of bad guys using the untrained Jason's body as a prop. Good humor breaks up what often threatens to be some tedious corn-fu, particularly when Chan's character goes through a mumbo-jumbo rain ceremony and gets a shower he didn't expect.

Kung fu junkies will also elbow each other over the many references to classics, from the first sight of the reeling, tippling Chan (whose astonishing "Drunken Master II" is required viewing) to Golden Sparrow's invitation to "come drink with me" (the title of another wuxia landmark).

Whatever actual lesson Jason learns about the precepts of martial arts is unclear at the hands of "Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron" writer John Fusco — although he gets handy with a stick. And the film's denouement is a painful trial in itself. It might take a Zen master to explain exactly what audience this is aimed at.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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