Jet Li and Jackie Chan have long been considered two of the finest martial artists to commit their ultraphysical, impossibly graceful stunt work to film. It only makes sense, then, that someone would have had the bright idea of casting them together before now in an action epic that would put all others to shame. Right?
Well, yes, except it didn’t happen until director Rob Minkoff (“The Lion King”) and screenwriter John Fusco (“Young Guns”) invited the pair to star in “The Forbidden Kingdom,” a playful, everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink affair in which Li and Chan play mysterious warriors on a quest to rescue the immortal Monkey King.
If that sounds just a tad silly, it is — deliberately so — but Fusco’s story, which began as a bedtime tale he concocted for his 11-year-old son, is also an unabashed love letter to the martial-arts culture that has fascinated Fusco ever since his own boyhood.
“My father was a Korean War veteran, and he picked up this secret form of self-defense there,” says Fusco. “I always begged him, ‘Tell me moves!’ He saw that I was really passionate about it, so I started taking classes at the Academy of Korean Martial Arts in Connecticut when I was 12 years old. It changed my life, and I started reading everything I could find about martial arts and Eastern culture.
“It’s important to remember that this movie wasn’t intended as a Jet-Jackie production. It began as a story that was important to me, that reflected my love for the martial arts and martial-arts cinema.”
Like Fusco, who began studying Shaolin kung-fu eight years ago near his home in Vermont and later in China, Minkoff has spent the last decade living in the United States and Beijing. A rabid fan of martial-arts cinema since childhood, the Palo Alto native jumped at the chance to shoot a film in Heng Dian, China, co-starring two of the genre’s most celebrated masters. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t have misgivings.
“Jet and Jackie are completely different — one is dark, one is light,” he says. “Jackie is the life of the party, Jet is a devout Buddhist. So there is a really strong contrast there. Plus, the movie has an incredible amount of very stylized, very poetic dialogue, and Jackie is more of a silent comedian in the mold of Buster Keaton. It’s the most English language either of them had ever done.
“We knew it could be great or it could blow up in our faces. Ultimately, we really wanted them to share the movie as equals, and for there to be a balance of their personalities reflected in John’s script. I think they did an amazing job connecting with his words and with each other in a way that is really convincing.”
Regardless of their differences in temperament, Chan was impressed by Li’s ability to meet the physical demands of each exhaustively choreographed scene with ease. While Chan admits that most fight sequences require 10 to 15 takes, his high-flying contests with Li took only three to five.
“All I did was tell Jet I’d do these few strokes and let him know my rhythm,” the “Rush Hour” star says. “He would pick up my rhythm and just react with his strokes. That kind of chemistry is rare.”