Jackie Chan makes action comedies, but there’s also something tragic about his oeuvre. The tragedy is that Jackie is a great talent who does not make great movies. Imagine Charlie Chaplin starring in comedies written by Adam Sandler or Rob Schneider, or Gene Kelly hoofing in musicals written by, uh, Adam Sandler or Rob Schneider.
This frustrating juxtaposition of sublime and ridiculous is especially sharp in Shanghai Knights, which contains more inspired action nuttiness and brilliant slapstick than all of Jackie’s previous Hollywood buddy movies combined, framed in a story that’s lamer and less funny than almost any of these previous outings.
That includes this film’s predecessor, Shanghai Noon, which, as its witty title suggests, was a clever East-meets-Old-West tribute to the classic Hollywood Western. This sequel, set in London, barely manages to be a tribute to Shanghai Noon. Yet in his inventive, elaborate stunt choreography Jackie pays wordlessly eloquent homage to the great physical performers of the past: The Three Stooges, Gene Kelly, Keystone Cops, Harold Lloyd. And two ladder-fu sequences recall one of Jackie’s own memorable triumphs in Jackie Chan’s First Strike.
Jackie’s buddy movies have been founded on the assumption that Jackie’s weak command of English is a handicap that can best be compensated for by giving him a partner to do most of the talking. Unfortunately, in practice these movies have imposed another handicap of their own: Jackie’s creative action choreography, the whole raison d’être of his films, has been limited to short bursts of a couple of minutes at most.
Give director David Dobkin credit for this much: He’s the first American director to give Jackie free rein to do what he does best. Watching him do it, for possibly the first time it looks as if saddling Jackie with a movie buddy isn’t such a bright idea after all.
It doesn’t help that Owen Wilson, returning as low-key cowboy Roy O’Bannon, hasn’t got a thing to work with, and is reduced to such tired gags as mocking Buckingham Palace’s famously impassive Beefeater guards and driving an out-of-control early-model automobile cross-country before crashing into Stonehenge. In Noon, Wilson was genuinely funny as a disarmingly garrulous train robber; here, when we meet up with him again, he’s been reduced to a self-described "thirty-year-old waiter-gigolo." "Where’s the future in that?" he whines plaintively. Or the humor value?
The plot is a trifle, of course, involving a conspiracy between a royal heir to the British throne (Aidan Gillen) and the Chinese emperor’s illegitimate half-brother (Donnie Yen, Iron Monkey), both of whom wish to seize power in their respective empires. Jackie again plays Chon Wang (pronounced more or less "John Wayne"), this time called upon to avenge the murder of his father, the keeper of the Imperial Seal, and to try to prevent the assassination of Queen Victoria and her nine closest successors.
What about supporting female roles? Noon had two, a Chinese princess (Lucy Liu) and an Indian chief’s daughter (Brandon Merrill), who wound up more or less paired off with our two heroes. Knights abandons both of these characters without explanation, giving us instead Singapore-born singer-actress Fann Wong as Lin, Chon Wang’s sister. Lin gets some decent action scenes but is underutilized throughout, and is pointlessly cut out of the dull climactic battle so that Wilson can do his fifth-wheel routine a bit more.
Fortunately, Jackie’s still more than capable of carrying the action by himself. After warming up in a deftly whimsical sequence involving a pack of baton-wielding policemen and a revolving door, Jackie cuts loose in the picture’s longest, most elaborate action sequence, a battle in the streets of London over O’Bannon’s stolen pocketwatch. (The soundtrack hammers home the homages here, playing "Keystone Cops" music for the revolving-door sequence and echoing Kelly’s "doo-dee-doo" rendition of the Singin’ in the Rain theme when Chon breaks out the umbrellas.)
Then there’s a hilarious sequence that turns the tables on scenes like the climax of Rush Hour, which had Jackie desperately trying to fight the bad guys in a museum setting without damaging priceless Chinese artifacts, a concern that made him vulnerable to the unscrupulous bad guys. In this scene it’s the bad guys who don’t want their stuff broken, and Chon takes full advantage of this vulnerability in a manic sequence reminiscent of Chaplin or Harpo Marx. Though he hasn’t got the blazing speed he once commanded, Jackie’s ingenious use of props and physical humor remains as striking as ever.
Unfortunately, his inspiration seems to have deserted him in the climactic sequence, in which we get only an energetic but unremarkable sword duel between Chon and the British villain whose skill as a swordsman easily outstrips Chon’s. There’s nothing fun or exciting about watching Gillen repeatedly disarm and wound Chon, nor does it make for a satisfying finale that Gillen is so sporting about the whole thing, repeatedly offering Chon his sword back just to prove he can keep beating him, until Chon changes the rules. By now we know that the bad guy always falls to his death in these scenes; but how can we cheer when the bad guy has just proven himself such a gallant opponent?
There’s an lot of lame attempts at period humor. It’s supposed to be funny that the Scotland Yard detective played by Tom Fisher turns out to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, that the young orphan pickpocket turns out to be, anachronistically, Charlie Chaplin, and so on. A number of critics have pointed out that at the time the story is set Chaplin hadn’t yet been born and the automobile was still in its infancy (I have yet to read anyone observing that Stonehenge isn’t in East Anglia). In a movie of this sort, of course, it’s unfair to pick on anachronisms of this sort, which fall under comic license. Yet if the gags aren’t funny — well, critics have to amuse themselves somehow.
As is often the case, the outtakes are funnier than the actual movie. In one flubbed scene, Jackie inadvertently calls Lin "my babysitter" instead of "my baby sister," prompting Wilson to laughingly correct him. They should have put it in the movie that way; it would have improved the scene and the film.
The humor is also less innocent this time around. In the first movie, the heroes go to a brothel only to get their backs rubbed, and O’Bannon has a dream sequence in which he’s being fanned and pampered by hookers while one nibbles on his ear (when he wakes up it turns out to be a vulture). This time we have O’Bannon openly discussing being paid to bed women, and there’s a scene with a bunch of hookers that turns into a seemingly innocent pillow fight, only to end with Chon and O’Bannon naked. There’s even an obligatory reprise of the dream sequence, but played here more for titillation than comedy.
If it didn’t contain perhaps the best physical performance from Jackie to hit American screens since the even more problematic Mr. Nice Guy in 1998, there would be little reason to see Shanghai Knights. Given a funnier, less problematic script, or maybe one more good fight scene, I would be able to recommend it outright. As it is, these factors more or less cancel each other out, leaving Shanghai Knights hovering on the edge of recommendability, like all the rest of Jackie’s Hollywood buddy films. For those who appreciate him as much as I do, that’s reason enough to see it.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.