Jackie Chan is one smart cookie. While most action stars over 40 watch
helplessly as their careers whither away (Jean-Claude Van Damme's last
film went straight to cable and about the only time Steven Seagal's name
comes up anymore is as a punchline in a Joe Rogan monologue), Chan
wisely shifted his approach to moviemaking, and has emerged more
successful than ever.
After years as the solo star of numerous chop-sockey films (including
the irresistibly cheesy "Rumble in the Bronx"), Chan teamed up with
motormouth comedian Chris Tucker for the 1998 hit "Rush Hour." Combining
several venerable film genres (action thriller, buddy movie and fish out
of water story), the production allowed Chan to simultaneously lighten
his physical load and broaden his appeal. Sharing top billing meant a
little less solo action, which had to be a relief for a performer famed
for his "Look Ma, no stuntmen!" fight scene style. Co-starring also
brought a whole new group of people into theaters, giving two cult
favorites the chance to reach a mass audience.
Chan repeats the formula in "Shanghai Noon," a comic western even more
enjoyable than "Rush Hour." The writers should be horsewhipped for some
of the crap in their sloppy script, but the film is enormously likable
nonetheless, thanks to bright photography, well-choreographed battles
and the tremendous chemistry between Chan and co-star Owen Wilson.
Wilson, best known as an oil-rigger/astronaut in "Armageddon" and an
enthusiastic ghost hunter in "The Haunting," became a favorite of indie
film fans with his first movie, the low budget charmer "Bottle Rocket."
As Dignan, leader of a group of young, stunningly unqualified would-be
criminals, Wilson was a hoot, drawing laughs with an odd mix of
grandiose scheming and old-fashioned good manners. He basically reprises
his Dignan character in "Shanghai Noon," and the results are delightful.
The plot, such as it is, follows Imperial Guard Chon Wang (Chan) as he
leaves China's Forbidden City, circa 1881, to rescue kidnapped Princess
Pei Pei (Lucy Liu), who has been spirited off to the American Wild West.
In Nevada, Chon and company encounter Roy O'Bannon (Wilson) and his gang
during a train robbery that goes wrong. After the fiasco, Wang and
O'Bannon follow all the rules of Buddy Movies 101, evolving from enemies
to best pals as they run from the law and try to save the Princess.
Along the way, both actors get ample time to strut their stuff. Chan
plays Chon Wang as a lovable, well-intentioned screw-up, stumbling from
one awkward social encounter to the next, armed only with a broad smile
and dazzling defensive skills (scrambling around a slew of attackers, he
is remarkably inventive, using horseshoes, tree limbs, moose antlers and
a sheriff's badge as weapons, to name but a few).
Wilson's Roy O'Bannon is a deliciously goofy outlaw, employing
contemporary phrasing and a New Age mindset (while preparing for a duel,
he tells himself, "Be the bullet") throughout the tale. Wilson reminded
me of James Brolin's character in "Westworld," faithfully adhering to
the Cowboy Code and expecting others to do the same ("I won't let you
cheapen this! A duel is a sacred moment," he shouts to a Sheriff about
to clip him).
His modern mannerisms work because the film is rooted less in the
historic Old West and more in the world of "F-Troop" and "Blazing
Saddles." From hip Indians making cultural wisecracks about whites to
pioneers mistaking Imperial Guards as Jews, the film traffics freely in
borscht belt ethnic humor. Somewhere, Mel Brooks is beaming.
The story also plays with political correctness, albeit in a haphazard
way. Princess Pei Pei and the Indian woman (Brandon Merrill) who marries
Wang during a night of stoned celebration are presented as empowered
individuals, then relegated to the background, only to turn up when the
boys are backed into a corner. Slavery and racism rear their ugly heads,
but are used primarily as devices to further the bonding between Wang
"Shanghai Noon" starts slowly, spending too long on the set-up, but once
it kicks into gear, the film is a frothy treat, offering fine widescreen
vistas, ripping action scenes and lots of laughs from Jackie Chan and
Owen Wilson. Two final recommendations: First, be sure to stay for the
closing credits, which feature some dandy outtakes. Second, if you enjoy
Wilson's performance, do yourself a favor and rent "Bottle Rocket."
Copyright © 2000 Edward Johnson-Ott