Shanghai Knights

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A sequel to Shanghai Noon, Shanghai Knights is the kind of movie for which one expects all of the best lines and spectacular action to be in the trailer and everything else in the movie to be dross. What a delight then to find that the trailer, a mighty fine one at that, shortchanges the movie. Far superior to the first film, Shanghai Knights makes the garbage that is Chan’s Rush Hour collaborations with Chris Tucker smell even more rank. As far as buddy-buddy action comedies go, they don’t get much better than this one.

Set in 1887, Chon Wang (Jackie Chan), now an American sheriff, learns his father has been murdered and the royal seal of the Chinese Emperor has been stolen. Chon enlists aid from old pal, Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson), now a New York waiter-gigolo (you read that right), and the pair go to London where Chon’s sister, Lin (Fann Wong), has tracked the murderous thief. It has something to do with a British aristocrat named Rathbone (Aidan Gillen doing a Gary Oldman impersonation) and the Chinese bastard child of the Emperor named Wu Yip (Donnie Yen) trying to take over the thrones of their respective countries. The preposterous story, a sitcom variation on the Brady Bunch or the Bundies or the Simpsons go to London, is just an excuse for the stars’ antics, but anyone who goes to this movie for the plot should be dropped on their head from a great height. The key to Shanghai Knights is chemistry, and if Chan and Wilson had any more of it, the lab would go kablooie.

For once, Chan’s action scenes look like his work in Hong Kong. Could director David Dobkin (Clay Pigeons) have done what no other Hollywood filmmaker has – let Chan, a very good director in his own right, just go off and do his own thing his own way? What has always made Jackie Chan special in the martial arts genre is his ability to utilize the environment. Every stool, table, coat or umbrella can become a weapon or a barrier to use against his enemies in ways one never thought of. One scene references Singin’ in the Rain making a direct statement about martial arts in the movies. Jackie Chan’s elaborately choreographed action set pieces exist in the same vein as Hollywood song-and-dance numbers, a rousing delight of comedy combined with graceful and astonishing movement. When Chan goes into action, it’s hard to imagine even Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly not getting a teensy bit jealous. True, Chan is older, slower, and more rickety than he has ever looked, but no other action star in the world has the inventiveness that he does.

But Shanghai Knights owes just as much to Owen Wilson, if not more. Wilson’s constant a-laugh-a-minute riffing gives the movie an amiable need-to-please quality, and Roy O’Bannon’s lost little boy in denial has a surprising poignancy. Realizing Chon does not think he’s good enough for Lin, Roy goes into a pout, but embraces the opportunity for a childish pillow fight with delirious abandon. Roy is like a lecherous Peter Pan who hides his pitifulness behind blatantly false (and thus self-effacing) bravado.

The point of the London setting turns out not to be a casual contrivance; writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar make familiar jokes about the British seem refreshing. From a Scotland Yard detective (a marvelous straight man in Tom Fisher) to the rainy weather and even a sly Beatles reference, the jokes come fast and furious and from clever directions. Charlie Chaplin appears as a character (like so much other stuff in the movie, he is an anachronism since he wasn’t born until 1889), which has some irony. Chan has long noted his indebtedness to Chaplin and Keaton and paid homages to them in films like Project A, Part II. So here, Chan generates humor by turning the tables – making it Chon Wang’s acrobatic style that influenced Chaplin. There is also an action scene involving a revolving door that could have come straight from a Chaplin film.

The only disappointment in Shanghai Knights is the payoff of a Jack the Ripper joke that gets a long buildup and the showdown between Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen (Iron Monkey, Wing Chun), one of Hong Kong’s more notable martial arts actors and choreographers. Still, those are minor quibbles in this, Jackie Chan’s best film since 1992’s Police Story 3: Super Cop.

George Wu

New York ,
George Wu holds a masters degree in cinema studies from NYU. He eats, drinks, and sleeps movies. Fortunately, he lives in New York City, the best place in the country for disorders of this type. He also works on the occasional screenplay when inspiration strikes, but his muses don't slap him around enough.