A merely competent martial-arts family adventure that will nevertheless go down in history as being the first, and quite possibly the last, teaming of legendary martial arts superstars Jackie Chan and Jet Li.
With solid studio backing, the film at the very least looks befitting of a grand, epic adventure and the involvement of Yuen Wo-Ping- renowned choreographer. It shows that an attempt was made to actually capture some action on-screen (unlike ‘The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor’ whose climatic battle between Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh was an embarrassment).
However, director Rob Minkoff working from a script from John Fusco is too intent on fashioning this as a pic for a broader audience i.e. my snotty nephew who compares The Jonas Brothers to The Beatles with no shame.
I would be curious to know if the original script was as watered down as the final product as Fusco’s script shows a real reverence for the genre with references to everything from ‘The Bride with White Hair’ to ‘Come Drink With Me’. Indeed, both Yuen Wo-Ping and cinematographer Peter Pau both worked on ‘The Bride with White Hair’ so credit where credit is due on hiring established veterans of the genre.
A very loose, frustrating adaptation of 15th century fable ‘Journey to the West’ that tacks on a clunky, stolid framing device to start and end the picture – we get yet another casualty of the ‘white man POV’.
Like ‘The Last Samurai’ and ‘Windtalkers’ before it, American audiences are apparently so vapid as to not watch a film driven by a different culture unless it’s seen through the eyes of a white man, or in this case, a white boy.
But I digress as this film doesn’t quite deserve of all this scrutiny – get past the fact that there’s an annoying pasty-faced white kid in ancient China who is standing in the way of two martial arts legends and you might have some fun…ahem.
Jason (Michael Angarano, ‘Sky High’), a nerdy Kung-Fu obsessed Boston teenager finds himself frequently visiting a pawn shop owned by an old Chinese gentleman who provides him with classic Kung-Fu bootlegs. On one such visit, he stumbles upon a golden staff in the back room that immediately gives him pause – he seems to recognize this staff from his dreams.
When the owner scoots him off with five Bruce Lee classics in hand, Jason pulls his best Ralph Macchio and gets his arse handed to him by a group of bullies (keeping with the times, these bullies are more like armed thugs…).
These thugs force Jason to connive his way into the pawn shop late at night where an accident might have cost the owner his life and Jason forced off the top of the building, golden staff in hand.
Waking up, he finds himself in ancient China along with a collective ‘finally’ sigh from the audience. The lush scenery of ancient China and the tiered rice patties will be a welcome sight for fans of Jet Li’s underrated ‘Fearless’.
From here, the story settles into a string of mild to decent martial-arts sequences, the highlight being the introductory battle between Jackie Chan, playing a version of his ‘Drunken Master’ character and Jet Li, doing his stoic monk routine.
Essentially the sequence most martial-arts fans signed up for, it’s both exciting and disappointing at the same time. Still, I’ll take what I can get when these two are on the screen at the same time.
The mechanics of the narrative, as written, is borderline arbitrary but the frequent fight sequences and fun performances get it past a lot of the rough stuff. Jet Li shines in dual roles with his stoic monk bit being in direct contrast to his portrayal of the ‘Monkey King’, the rightful owner of the golden staff and immortal half-primate whose playful hijinks and mastery of kung-fu is second only to his naiveté when the villain challenges him to a duel that doesn’t include weapons or magic.
Jackie Chan playing a master whose immortal ‘elixir’ just happens to be wine is a nice nod to Chan’s most accomplished work in ‘Drunken Master II’ and his small dollops of drunken boxing never failed to bring a smile. Chan and Li have great chemistry together and would make a truly dynamic team given the right project.
The film is presented in a 2.40:1 widescreen format and is enhanced for widescreen televisions. The transfer is okay to good but surprisingly noisy for a new release.
A bounty of special features starts off with a commentary from director Minkoff and writer Fusco who provide some nice overall anecdotes but nothing terribly exciting. ‘Kung Fu Dream Team’ is a ten-minute look at how Jet Li and Jackie Chan came together on the project and they’ve had a close-call collaborative history for almost fifteen years.
Can you imagine a team up fifteen years ago?! Darn. ‘Dangerous Beauty’ looks at the female interests of the pic in the form of Crystal Liu and Li Bingbing.
‘Discovering China’ is eight minutes of following the crew as they scout for prime filming locations. What a job these peeps have…I’m depressed. ‘Filming in Chinawood’ takes a look at the stage-bound sequences, ‘Monkey King and the Eight Immortals’ is a ten minute look at writer John Fusco describing his take on the martial-arts and how it inspired him.
‘Storyboards and Previs’, a ‘Blooper Reel’ and ‘Deleted Scenes’ with commentary from Minkoff finish off the extras with a second disc being the now requisite Digital Copy.
This pic is a mixed blessing for martial-arts fans as even Chan and Li together in what’s essentially a children’s film is worth watching, but there’s no doubt it could’ve been much more even keeping in mind the need for a broad audience.
Point in fact being that this film does carry the same rating as ‘The Dark Knight’ and while I wouldn’t want Jet Li stabbing anybody in the eyeball with a pencil, a little edge couldn’t have hurt.
Despite my misgivings, it’s a perfectly acceptable introduction to Jackie Chan and Jet Li for the tween and teen set and if nothing else will maybe result in a few kids using this pic as their jumping off point. On the DVD front, plentiful special features provide some bang for the buck and make up for the somewhat lacking transfer.