As the MacGuffin powering the plot of the film that at last brought Jackie Chan and Jet Li together onscreen, The Forbidden Kingdom’s magic staff was destined to be an evocative object for fans of martial arts movies – but it merits consideration as more than just the emblem of that unprecedented pairing.
The main character in The Forbidden Kingdom is not one of those played by the aforementioned action icons but rather a teenage kung-fu film aficionado played by Michel Angarano. Finding the staff stored in the pawn shop where he buys bootleg chop-socky DVDs, he is pulled from our world into its and begins a high-kicking quest to return it to its immortal owner. Centuries before, the Monkey King had flung the enchanted staff across realities to stop it being stolen by the dastardly Jade Warlord, who soon turned him to stone. If our pubescent protagonist can un-petrify the simian monarch by reuniting him with the staff, he’ll be able go home – but if the Jade Warlord captures it, all kinds of evil will be unleashed. The staff, then, is similar to the ring in The Lord of the Rings: it is sought by characters good, bad and of indeterminate morality, and carries with it the fate of its fantastical world. But, for viewers, it has a simpler significance.
The Forbidden Kingdom is primarily a film for long-time fans of Asian action cinema: every aspect of it is influenced by hundreds of Hong Kong classics. It contains more references to kung-fu films than Kill Bill, and Angarano’s character represents every Westerner who has ever watched one. When we see a martial arts movie, we imagine ourselves in it, able to display the eye-defying skills and astonishing athleticism of Jet Li or Jackie Chan, and to fight in a world where our enemies line up to take their thrashings one at a time rather than all piling in at once and putting the boot in, as probably they would if we tried using the No Shadow Kick against a gang of muggers outside the local chip shop. The Monkey King’s magic staff is a passport to that world: it attracts us because we can believe that, if we could get hold of it, perhaps we could be Bruce Lee for a bit.