This article appeared in Issue 28 of "Asian Cult Cinema"
Following on the box office success of "Rush Hour", Jackie Chan returns to the big screen in an 'East-meets-Western', "Shanghai Noon". And though the basic plot elements are the same between this latest offering and "Rush Hour" (while in America to rescue someone near and dear to him, Chan gets reluctantly partnered with someone who is all-talk-and-no-action), "Shanghai Noon" is actually a much more enjoyable film. Thanks to some great chemistry between Chan and his co-star Owen Wilson ("Armageddon"), plus a script that pokes fun at the clichés and conventions of the Western, "Shanghai Noon" is probably the most fun I have had in a Jackie Chan movie in years.
The plot in a nutshell: it is the year 1881, and in China's Forbidden City, Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu of TV's "Ally McBeal") is abducted by ex-Imperial Guard Lo Fong (Roger Yuan of "Lethal Weapon 4"), who demands a ransom of 100,000 gold pieces for her safe return. Four Imperial Guards are sent to America to deliver the ransom, including Chon Wang (Chan), who has a crush on the princess. Of course, things don't work out as expected, and Wang ends up lost in the Nevada desert without a clue as to where to find the princess. Fortunately, Wang finds himself accompanied (albeit reluctantly) on his quest by two locals. One is Roy O'Bannon (Wilson), an outlaw-wannabe who is not as tough as he thinks he is, and is only offering his assistance in the hope of getting his hands on the gold. The other sidekick is a charming Native American woman who Wang finds himself inadvertently married to following a night of drunken carousing.
"Shanghai Noon" is not the first 'East-meets-Western'-- that honor would go to the Sammo Hung-directed "Once Upon a Time in China & America" from a couple of years back. And while some of the elements were the same, particularly the 'fish out of water' story, "Shanghai Noon" is clearly the superior effort. Jet Li certainly displayed his martial arts prowess in the action sequences of "Once Upon a Time in China & America", but like most of his films, he was saddled with an emotionally-cold and narratively-challenged script that relied on cardboard characters and the lame-duck humor that is typical of Hong Kong comedies.
"Shanghai Noon", on the other hand, may not be as action-packed, but it certainly is much more rounded out in terms of the script. Wang and O'Bannon are two terrific characters who are perfect foils for each other. Wang is smart and determined to complete his mission, yet has little understanding of the ways of the Wild West. Meanwhile, O'Bannon understands how things work in America, yet he is not as smart or heroic as he says he is, and thinks that being an outlaw is a great way to get chicks. Even more importantly, with his easygoing and laid-back style, O'Bannon is actually a likable sidekick that the audience can latch onto (contrast this to Tucker's character in "Rush Hour", who was just plain annoying). Together, their strengths and weaknesses play well off each other, creating a terrific chemistry in their scenes together, which go a long way in building audience goodwill.
The film also successfully captures the look-and-feel of the old Westerns, as first-time feature director Tom Dey judiciously makes good use of southern Alberta's scenic vistas and widescreen lensing-- but the incredible simulation doesn't end there. The script, penned by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (who both worked on "Lethal Weapon 4"), pays homage to almost every Western ever made, filled with nudge-nudge-wink-wink references to a diverse group of source material that includes "Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid", "A Man Called Horse", "High Noon", spaghetti Westerns, and James Brown ("I don't know karate... but I know c-razy!"). Aficionados of the Western genre will probably have a ball just playing 'spot-the-reference', while the jokey references to Western movie clichés will probably ring true to the average moviegoer.
As mentioned earlier, "Shanghai Noon" is not as action-heavy as Chan's previous outings, and when Chan does get around 'wupping ass', most of the fight sequences are played up for laughs. This is probably a good idea, since the 46-year old Chan doesn't move as fast as he used to (compare his moves now to the lightning-fast fury that he was able to unleash in 1985's "Police Story"). However, Chan purists will still find a lot to like in the martial arts set-pieces, which include a good ol' fashioned bar brawl where Chan makes good use of moose antlers, a riverside scuffle against an unfriendly Indian tribe, and the film's final battle inside a church.
Mind you, there are some flaws in "Shanghai Noon", making it far from perfect, including Wang's 'wife' all but disappearing from the story, numerous contrived plot twists, and some tight-framing of the fight sequences that sometimes makes the action difficult to follow. But the performances delivered by Chan and Wilson more than make up for these shortcomings since they are so much fun to watch-- Chan for his Buster Keaton-like physicality, and Wilson for his droll clueless shtick. But other than Xander Berkeley ("Time Code"), who has a memorable turn as a bloodthirsty lawman on their tail, the supporting players easily disappear into the background noise. Merrill, as Wang's wife, is underused with only two lines in the entire film, while Yuan is just another martial arts villain in search of a personality. Finally, Liu is essentially relegated to 'damsel in distress' mode, though she does manage to get a few kicks in near the end.
"Shanghai Noon is the most worthwhile Jackie Chan film that I have seen in a very long time. With well-conceived characters, witty dialogue, and Chan's continued ability to amaze with his mastery of martial arts, this is a film that will not only please Chan fans, but will probably bring in a rush of new converts. At the time of writing this review, Disney has just announced that a sequel will be made ("Shanghai Afternoon" perhaps?), which will apparently be in the vein of "Indiana Jones"... I can't wait.