Shanghai Noon (2000)

D: Tom Dey
S: Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson

Lighthearted, lightweight Jackie Chan vehicle which shows that the young master is still able to deliver enough spry and humorous action in his middle age to bolster an otherwise mediocre film. Jackie's second Hollywood comic action buddy movie is not as good as the first (Rush Hour). It is pitched at a slightly younger audience, and, as such, provides perfectly adequate entertainment for the smaller fry. In fact, other than the customary end title outtakes which feature a number of mild expletives, this film is not far off 'G' cert fare, with only a few 'adult situations' which are likely to pass over the heads of very young children anyway and one violent shooting to upset them. Adult viewers in a tolerant mood can chortle and giggle in the spirit of the thing, but there is really not all that much to take home in the way of spectacular action, and the deliberate anachronism in dialogue and attitude doesn't make it so much a parody of the western as an all-too contemporary comedy in cowboy costume.

The plot has 19th century Chinese Imperial Guard Chan come to 1881 Nevada in search of kidnapped princess Lucy Liu (Payback, TV's Ally McBeal). He crosses paths with slow-talking would-be outlaw Owen Wilson and finds himself embroiled in the usual mixture of action scenes and ethnic comedy. Most of it is very cartoonish, with Jackie struggling gamely with his English-language dialogue unsuccessfully against Wilson's often very verbal (and genuinely quirky) performance amid the elaborate fighting, leaping, and falling. Curiously enough it is Wilson, best known as co-writer of Rushmore and Bottle Rocket (he appeared as an actor in the latter, and also featured in the ill-fated remake of The Haunting), who is most memorable here. His curious style of speech and deliberately inappropriate portrayal of a western desperado as a kind of hippy surfer dude is really the most subversive element. Jackie's plight as the East-meets-West fish out of water should be more interesting than it is, but really despite his usual charming facial gestures and one or two impressive martial arts scenes (the best being his duel using a horse shoe on a rope), he plays it too much by rote to make an impact. Wilson, on the other hand, is a surprise, and though he is still not Gene Wilder in Blazing Saddles or even James Garner in Support Your Local Sheriff, it is one of the more interesting comic western performances we have seen in a while.

Jackie fans will still lap it up, at least until the next one comes along or they elect to revisit one of the classic comic actioners on their own time. Chan is aging, and it is unfortunate that his Hollywood breakthrough has come so late. Even Rush Hour and Jackie Chan's First Strike managed to have a few eye-popping, heart stopping moments of vintage comic martial arts. Shanghai Noon is nice, harmless middle of the road stuff which one senses that insurance companies and studio execs were eager to tone down both for the sake of their worries about their star and fears for the target audience. Emblazoned with the Touchstone logo, this is a film which specifically panders to a younger viewer, and its cartoonish style, preachy tone, and relatively subdued level of extreme physical action seems intended to pass the time pleasantly rather than stimulate the senses. There is a place for this of course, and there's nothing wrong with the film as such. It is quite funny (the best bits are near the beginning), it holds together all the way (although the story logic collapses at the climax when the characters give up having sub-plots and just start fighting one another to up the action quotient), and succeeds in producing a happy grin if you let it. Jackie is good, Wilson is interesting, Lucy Liu is pretty though given little to do. There are bits and pieces which parody various films (not just westerns: the climax set in a Church apes John Woo (The Killer, Face/Off), and the whole thing is exactly what it intends to be. Just don't expect a classic and you won't be disappointed. Shanghai Noon could be great fun if you were in the right mood, but it is not essential viewing and not as highly recommended as any of Jackie's Hong Kong classics.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2000.