Shanghai Noon

Shanghai Noon

Blue Lotus of the Nile

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Ten years ago, when Jackie Chan was still barely a rumor in the United States, his fans would struggle to describe the experience of his movies to skeptical friends. "Imagine Buster Keaton," we’d say, "Bruce Lee and Gene Kelly, all in the same body." When that failed, we’d fall back on describing his stunts, detailing one of his balletic, dizzying fights or a motorcycle jump to the roof of a speeding train, all of it photographed and edited in ways that made it clear that Chan had actually performed these impossible feats. Exasperated – since nothing is more immune to description than physical comedy – we’d finally just drag the heathens to a theater. They’d walk out ninety minutes later, awestruck and slack-jawed (just as we’d all been our first time), new converts to the Church of Jackie.

Chan’s underground American fan base grew exponentially through the late ’80′s and early ’90′s, in every city with a large enough Asian population to attract his latest films. Hollywood finally came to call in 1995, and since then he’s alternated between American-made hits like Rush Hour and dubbed re-releases of earlier Hong Kong films.

Sadly, his move to America came right as his work started to fall off. It’s partly a matter of age. Chan is 46 years old and battered by a lifetime of stunts gone wrong, many captured on film and shown in the outtakes that conclude each of his films as a testament to the real dangers of his seemingly effortless sight gags. He is simply no longer able to perform the physical feats that once dominated his films.

He’s also constrained by Hollywood formula. His Hong Kong action scenes were choreographed and shot to emphasize his grace and timing. His recent work relies instead on the standard Hollywood tricks: frenetic pacing and jarring close-ups, all of which undermine his strengths in favor of bludgeoning the audience.

Worse, he has yet to direct an American film. After years of routine work in Bruce Lee knockoffs, he came into his own once he began to direct and choreograph his own work. His unforced, easy rhythmic sense put the focus on sight gags rather than martial arts and allowed him to refine his onscreen persona. He’s a charming mix of hapless bumbling and superhuman dexterity, more often terrified than confident, and never as smart as his adversaries. He barely makes it out of his movies alive, relying on manic improvisation with whatever objects he trips over – a chair, a ladder, a mouthful of scalding hot peppers – to fight his way out of a jam.

Though his new film, the Western parody Shanghai Noon, never reaches the giddy heights of his best films – Armour of God 2, Supercop, Drunken Master 2 or his masterpiece, Project A: Part 2 – it’s an entertaining comedy that far surpasses his previous American films.

This is due primarily to his co-star, Owen Wilson. Wilson (who co-wrote and starred in the wonderful Bottle Rocket and co-wrote Rushmore, the decade’s best film) has an affable charm that’s a perfect compliment to Chan. In a performance indebted to Keith Carradine’s goofy cowpoke in Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, he plays an amiable motor-mouth who robs trains less as a career than a means of meeting girls. He’s an intriguing choice to play a Western hero. He never seems to inhabit the period, but there are no young actors working today who could. (Even a performer as gifted as John Cusack looked like a toddler in his first cowboy outfit in The Jack Bull.) Rather than cast someone who might strive for authenticity and fail, the filmmakers play up Wilson’s anachronistic surfer dude intonations and thoroughly modern style.

The plot, as in all good Chan movies, is just an excuse for gags. A Chinese princess (Lucy Liu, much better than her usual shrill shtick) is kidnapped from The Forbidden City and taken to America. Chan, an Imperial Guard, is sent to America to retrieve her. While en route to Carson City, Wilson robs his train. After some animosity, Chan and Wilson team up to rescue Liu.

The film trots out a catalog of Western cliches and gently deflates them. Nothing is too old or tired: we get bar fights, cathouses, even a horse that sucks whiskey straight from the bottle. It works because it’s not straight parody – rather than trying to demolish genre conventions, it ribs them. It has no ambitions beyond generating belly laughs, and it provides Chan enough freedom to deliver them. Shanghai Noon isn’t great Jackie Chan, but for the first time in a while, it’s good enough.

Gary Mairs

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