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Shanghai Noon   B+

Touchstone Pictures

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Tom Dey
Writers: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar
Cast: Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Lucy Liu, Roger Yuan, Xander Berkeley, Brandon Merill.

Review by Rob Vaux

The western has been at death's door since the masterful Unforgiven in 1992 and was on life support long before then. Western comedies have been even more scarce (unless you want to count Bad Girls) which is why a film like Shanghai Noon is so refreshing. Not only does it resurrect a nearly defunct sub-genre, but it succeeds far more than it has any right to. The pairing of Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson may have something to do with it. Chan's star power rests on his instantly entertaining charm, his ability to make you want to watch him no matter what he's doing. Here he plays Chon Wang, a Peking Imperial guardsman out to rescue a kidnapped princess (Lucy Liu) from the wilds of Nevada. Chon's a bit of a goofball, but he takes his duties very seriously and he's fiercely devoted his mistress's safety. Naturally, he's less than thrilled when he crosses paths with Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson), a sort of hippie outlaw who's never too busy to stop and smell the roses. Though they begin at cross purposes, the two gradually form an alliance, fighting outlaws, Crow Indians, and a pair of nasty bad guys (Roger Yuan and Xander Berkeley) on their way to the princess's rescue.

Most Jackie Chan flicks use the story as a flimsy excuse to stage all kinds of elaborate stunts. There's very little character development and almost no coherent plot; just Chan and a whole bunch of props. While Shanghai Noon has more structure than his earlier works, it's still a little soft in the drama department. There's some feeble efforts as romantic developments that flails around a bit before settling for some pointless pairing up. Director Tom Dey makes the mistake of repeating some of the deus ex machina, which highlights their flaws even more. Nagging questions linger from scene to scene and plot holes gape with little or no effort to explain them away.

Chan's long-time fans, however, know that none of that really matters. The meat of his films -- Shanghai Noon included -- are the elaborate stunt pieces, giving him a chance to exercise his formidable martial arts skills in uniquely creative ways. He doesn't disappoint here, engaging in everything from barroom brawls to classic western showdowns with amazing bravura. Chan uses props and set pieces with a showman's dexterity, and his fight scenes are always imaginative. He overlays the action with a wonderful slapstick persona: unlike many martial arts stars, Chan isn't afraid to make fun of himself and his merest presence adds a sense of the ridiculous to every scene he's in. His fans won't be disappointed by his work here, right down to the expected outtakes reel over the final credits.

He's also found a great tag-team partner in Wilson, whose best turn before now was as an amiable sociopath in the little-seen The Minus Man. Here he proves every bit Chan's equal, spouting goofy Zen sayings and taking the pair's constant peril less than seriously. The interplay between the two is terrific, and Wilson's verbal comedy makes a nice foil for Chan's acrobatics. His laid-back outlaw routine becomes very endearing and gives a strong character to anchor the rest of the film.

Together, the two stars smoothly facilitate the "eastern western" that Shanghai Noon so clearly wants to be. They also have a lot of fun sending up classics of the genre: everything from Dances With Wolves to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid gets a sharp poke in the ribs. There's even a villain named Van Cleef, a tip of the hat to the spaghetti western staple of the same name. The settings are suitably picturesque, with Alberta filling in admirably for northern Nevada, and we're treated to some lovely shots of Beijing's Forbidden City before the action gets underway. Along with the two stars, the pretty pictures and clever stunts provide more than enough balsa wood to prop up the film's weaker aspects.

Shanghai Noon is pure fluff: a summer popcorn movie without an intelligent thought in its breezy little head. But with an unpretentious effort and such a charming pair of stars, who cares? Check out Romeo Must Die if you want to see what too much plot can do. This is the season of dancing clowns, after all, and Shanghai Noon provides a pair of the best you can see. The less you demand here, the more fun you'll have. Yippie-kay-ay, grasshopper.

Review published 06.02.2000.

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