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Shanghai Noon

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Shanghai Noon

Starring: Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson
Director: Tom Dey
Rated: PG-13
RunTime: 105 Minutes
Release Date: May 2000
Genres: Action, Comedy, Martial Arts

*Also starring: Lucy Liu, Curtis Armstrong, Xander Berkeley, Rongguang Yu, Jason Connery, Henry O

Review by Edward Johnson-Ott
2½ stars out of 4

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 and O'Bannon.

"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

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