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By Matthew Sorrento | April 18, 2008

Alright, let’s get right to it – we all know what’s at stake here.

The first ever on-screen meeting between Jackie Chan and Jet Li goes like this: Li’s character, Silent Monk, has stolen away with a magical golden staff, a weapon and something like a talisman. Dressed in white, he appeared in a forest and was chased back to a temple by Lu Yan (Chan; long haired and, at times, a drunken master). They exchange a few words before launching into a fight sequence with such tight choreography by Woo-Ping Yuen that the scene plays like a dance number. Fists and kicks mix with jumps off the wall, and the precise hand-to-hand performance is so organic that it could have originated in the two stars’ sparring in rehearsal. This fairly early scene pays off to the fans and brings the golden staff back Lu Yan, for whom we’re rooting. But the story lets us have it both ways: we soon learn that Chan and Li will join forces.

This is good news for the movie’s central character, who, alas, is neither of the two main attractions, and far from them. He’s Jason (Michael Angarano), a contemporary white teenager from South Boston who, after finding the staff in a junk shop, gets transported to China of long ago. There he meets Lu Yan, who greets him as a prophecy. His time travel is really a dream come true, for we know that he’s a Kung Fu film geek, the kind who hunts for bootlegs and knows more about them than the man selling them. Through time travel, this seemingly fish out of water has really found his equivalent of a pro-baseball dream camp.

So the first Chan-Li vehicle is an outright wish-fulfillment package – there is no other reason to explain why Jason’s character isn’t Asian. The target audience should transport themselves into this every-kid, who gets mentored by both Chan and Li! And if that’s not enough, Jason also gets to mix it up with two master-killer babes. One is an orphan out for revenge. The delicate looking but fierce Golden Sparrow (Liu Yifei) joins Jason and Lu Yan when the two avoid an attack. And then there’s Li Chang (Li Bing Bing), a white-haired “witch warrior” who completes the darker half of the dual male fantasy. Jason will eventually go head-to-head with her, when the witch warrior wields a whip to throw the drooling viewer into S&M mode.

The main foe of the Jason-Yu Lan-Silent Monk team is the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), who’s assisted by Li Chang. He desires the golden staff due to a backstory that means very little in this whole affair. But for the record: the Jade Warlord has a life-sized statue that’s really the Monkey King (also played by Li) frozen in stone. He long ago became suspended thus after a losing battle with the Warlord. By including the Monkey King, scriptwriter John Fusco peppers his story with Chinese myth and some awkward references to Taoism and its applications to battle. Taoism comes in handy when Chan and Li mentor our fanboy/audience identifier into a warrior of his own. Believe in yourself, white boy, and you’ll be an acrobatic Asian rock star. Even when you meet up with your bullies back in Boston.

This one’s a contrived item right off the studio assembly line. But two of those parts add a lot of horsepower, the two we’ve come to see. Chan throws his chops around with ease, but by injecting humor into his character throughout, things pay off. He’s fed some great lines, but can drop them without the thud that such action-movie script manipulation usually leaves. And his humor rubs off, allowing the usually steel-faced Li to open up. When training Jason, Silent Monk (along with Lu Yan) makes the kid into punching bag, a strike back from the stars at the fans who wrongfully deify them. Best of all, we know that Li and Chan aren’t taking all the hype seriously, when the former relieves himself on the latter. Devout audience members will hardly notice the sideswipes.

A dance of combat and humor saves a contrivance from drowning. Or, rather, Chan and Li elevate it enough to make it into a good time.

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