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Shanghai Knights   C+

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 2003
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: David Dobkin
Writers: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar
Cast: Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Fann Wong, Aaron Johnson, Thomas Fisher, Aidan Gillen, Donnie Yen, Oliver Cotton.

Review by Rob Vaux

Lightning really can't strike twice, though sometimes it comes close. No one could have expected a buddy picture teaming Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson as mismatched cowboys to work, but the result -- 2000's Shanghai Noon -- turned out to be Chan's best foray into American cinema yet. The inevitable sequel, Shanghai Knights, works hard to recreate the same energy and fun, with mixed results. At times, it feels just as fresh and funny as the first film... which makes the periodic dead patches all the more difficult to bear.

Certainly the chemistry between the leads remains intact. Smiles come swift and easily whenever Chan's Imperial guardsman-turned-gunslinger Chon Wang shares the screen with Wilson's flaky con artist Roy O'Bannon. Shanghai Knights moves them from the Wild West to London, and while the new setting loses a little pep, it still has enough potential to keep the gags rolling. The pair arrive in pursuit of Wang's sister (a charming Fann Wong), who herself is after a Chinese Imperial seal stolen by yet another pair of central casting villains (Aidan Gillen, looking like the love child of Alec Baldwin and John Cusack; and Donnie Yen, adequately menacing). Hijinks ensue which, like those of the first film, are aimed squarely at entertaining the audience to the exclusion of all else.

So long as there's action to be had, it succeeds admirably. Though age is slowly claiming Chan's physical skills, he and his stunt team retain their flair for clever fight choreography. Shanghai Knights soars, like most of Chan's other films, when he cuts loose on assorted gangs of baddies, using architecture, nearby props, and even his fellow combatants to accentuate his martial arts prowess. In the process, he manages to pay direct homage to a plethora of cinematic forefathers, from Gene Kelly to Errol Flynn to the Keystone Kops; each sequence is instantly endearing, while staying true to Chan's own unique on-screen persona.

The trouble comes whenever the fireworks die down. Shanghai Knights is never as light on its feet as it wants to be, and much of its would-be humor misses the mark by a few vital degrees. Wilson -- so good playing off of his partner -- seems lost whenever he has to carry the show himself, falling back on a half-wit lothario routine that wears increasingly thin. The inevitable chases lack the sparkle of Chan's fight scenes, and a series of gags involving a secret door worked much better in the Indiana Jones films than they do here. Director David Dobkin labors to maintain an even tone, and while he scores a few hits, they never play as well as intended. The film plays awfully loose with history as well, using famous figures and events regardless of whether they actually existed in London at the time. Accuracy shouldn't be a priority in such a romp, of course, but it's so pivotal to so many parts of the film that one can't help but notice (it's almost worth it, however, to hear Wong call Jack the Ripper a loser).

The flaws don't add up as long as Shanghai Knights stays true to its predecessor's spirit. Chan and Wilson have a great deal of affection for the material, and their efforts pay off just often enough to make us hope for better things. But Shanghai Knights simply can't maintain its focus for the duration, leaving too many segments struggling for air. Shanghai Noon came as an unexpected surprise, which gave it a real edge in earning our affections. Shanghai Knights has no such luxury, and must content itself with meeting previous expectations. As a curtain call, it will suffice; as anything else, it leaves just a tad too much to be desired.

Review published 02.10.2003.

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