BEVERLY HILLS, California — Collectively, Jackie Chan and Jet Li have entertained millions, headlined some of the most popular martial-arts films ever and kicked thousands of asses. So what group of dastardly, soul-sucking evildoers were responsible for thwarting three decades of them attempting to team up?
"We've known each other for more than 30 years, and 20 years ago we tried to work on a movie together," Chan told us recently. "I called him, and we sat and talked, and he agreed, and I wrote the script and he agreed to the script. I told my company to do it, then somehow it [didn't come together]. I said 'Why?' and they said, 'Because they want to own the rights.' 'Who owns the rights?' 'Golden Harvest wants to own the rights.' 'China Star wants to own the rights.' 'Who owns the DVD rights?' 'Who owns the video rights?' I said, 'No! Who cares? Just make the movie!' "
Now, the two head-smashing headliners finally face off in "The Forbidden Kingdom," a new film boasting a unique mixture of kung-fu and fantasy elements. "Snow Angels" star Michael Angarano plays a Boston teen obsessed with kung-fu movies who is magically transported to China and teamed up with a silent monk (Jet Li) and a drunken master (Jackie Chan). If he is to make it home alive, he must defeat the Jade Warrior (Collin Chou), free the enigmatic Monkey King and keep his two adversarial allies from killing each other.
"Who wins in a fight between Jackie Chan and Jet Li?" Angarano grinned, repeating the key question. "See the movie!"
"The first day they fought each other is where they're by themselves in the scene," he said of an early "Kingdom" fight scene so epic that it plays like an outtake of the sunglasses scene from "They Live." "It took two weeks to shoot that fight."
"Everybody thought, 'Wow!' But for us, it was nothing," Jackie Chan said of the first day they squared off on set. "To us, it was just another movie, an ordinary day, but when the day came, a million people showed up, surrounded [the set], and there were paparazzi trying to take photos. Every day, the paparazzi tried to get in to take photos. ... They just wanted to see Jet maybe give me a punch."
Meanwhile, as the script called for Chan and Li's characters to teach Angarano's character all the moves they'd spent decades perfecting, art had to imitate life.
"They were always teaching me new things," he said of his interaction with the duo. "But it was more movie-fight tricks than it was actual martial arts. Like when you get hit in the arm with a staff, you can't put a pad on yourself, because then it will look like you have a pad on. Instead, you put three or four little chopsticks [under your shirt], which Jackie did. The impact would be absorbed by the chopsticks."
As he rides alongside the masters across China and does battle with armies of adversaries, the sheepish Angarano goes through a tremendous transformation into a chiseled, fast-moving fist-thrower himself. But the actor is quick to caution: If you ever encounter him at your local Starbucks, and an evildoer springs into action, don't look to him for any real-life heroics.
"I was told by my trainers: 'Michael, when you go home after the movie, don't try and use this in a real fight, because you'll lose,' " he chuckled. " 'This is a movie fight, you know the moves. But in a real fight, you don't know the moves. ... Don't try to do this.'
"I don't know how I would hold up in a real fight over here," Angarano shrugged. "If I tried to use martial arts, I might get hurt."
In the meantime, "Kingdom" returned Chan to the signature style he perfected years ago, honoring a cinematic tradition that yielded the "Drunken Master" films many consider to be his best work. "Drunken style is you pretend you are drunk, and the enemy doesn't know what's going on," he explained. "When people come [at you], you fall down. But you must have a very good technique to get up again, that's the trick. When you give me a punch, when I'm drunk, I never come to you. When you come to me, even though you touch me, it doesn't hurt because I'm already falling down. Then I use all over my body to attack you, not just kicking and punching."
According to Chan, however, a true drunken master has to have the patience to perfect his skills with far more training than someone like Angarano could receive in a year. "I have to learn 10 years drunken style, and you have to learn one year karate to beat me. karate is easy," he grinned. "Drunken style has so many details. You have to do acrobatics and learn so many movements. So most people just learn the fast way: tae kwon do, karate, easy."
So when you figure that the "Forbidden Kingdom" star has been training since 1960, it seems like Angarano is correct in assuming that he wouldn't be able to defeat someone like him in a real fight. But hang in there, Michael: You're only 470 years away from being able to take down Jackie Chan.
Check out everything we've got on "The Forbidden Kingdom."
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