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Kung Phooey

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Is there room in one movie for Jackie Chan and Jet Li? In "The Forbidden Kingdom" the two famed martial-arts stars appear in the same movie for the first time, and they characteristically try to make the occasion memorable. As it so often does at the movies, memorable easily crosses over into forgettable.

So much effort is expended to make the Chan/Li combo a hit -- long fight sequences and equally lengthy verbal sparring abound — audiences tend to lose track of the main character, Jason (Michael Angarano), a teenager from our era magically transported to mythic China, where he must hack through a jungle of side plots. If Jason looks lost most of the time, it must be because, like us, he's unsure exactly where he is and what's going on.

Directed by Rob Minkoff ("The Lion King"), "Kingdom" does surprisingly little to earn interest in its characters. It's more of a showcase than a story, a hodgepodge of Chinese myth, Asian cinema characters and grabs from other fantasy films. One character, Golden Sparrow (Yifei Liu), chews through much scenery and dialogue to arrive at a completely futile ending that has nothing to do with the rest of the story. With a smattering of the genre in mind, this might seem like par for the course. Surprising, then, that Jason, a rabid kung fu movie fan, never notices any of the references. Brides with white hair, Shaolin monks, drunken masters — all pass without arousing much interest in the boy, despite all those posters of the same he has plastered on his bedroom walls back home.

One must remember, of course, that the fans important to the filmmakers are the real ones buying tickets, and "Kingdom" may successfully impress some of those. With consistently over-the-top performances, broadly emotional dialogue and lots of action, the movie is as intensely schizophrenic as any Asian action cinema that might have inspired it. Its makers may have overplayed their hand, however, by giving so much screen time (and, one suspects, leeway) to both of the genre's larger-than-life figures. (PG-13) 113 min. S



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