By Kim Hollis
July 15, 2003
An anachronistic and surreal turn on the buddy flick, Shanghai Knights reunites Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan with the hilarious Owen Wilson. It’s a worthy follow-up to the underrated Shanghai Noon, expanding on the fun by taking the duo to an entirely new location and transforming genre type from Western to Victorian action/mystery.
Both stars get the fish-out-of-water treatment in this film, as the stage is set with the assassination of the father of Chon Wang (Chan). The killer makes off with a priceless family seal. Wang, who has settled in as the sheriff of Carson City, Nevada since we last saw him, decides that his patrimonial loyalty is more important than a cushy job and heads to London to look for the criminals responsible. On his way, he stops on the East Coast to visit his old friend Roy O’Bannon (Wilson) to enlist his help.
Of course, once the duo arrives in England, they learn that the ways of the Brits are a lot different than the customs and habits of the more frontier-based Americans. This leads Roy to the profound proclamation that “this country blows.” His pain is lessened somewhat when he meets Wang’s sister Lin (Fann Wong), a lovely but potently powerful young woman who, like her brother, has followed the assassins to England. Matters are complicated by the fact that a British lord is heavily involved in the entire mess.
The film is unabashedly wacky, which absolutely works for me. Though the general story is well-conceived, the people involved never really let the audience forget that they’re watching a movie, and use well-placed incongruities in historical perspective to underline that point. These anomalies include a chance encounter with a young Charlie Chaplin, a mishap with Stonehenge, a discussion on whether automobiles are a good investment for the future, and an advice session with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about a mystery he’s thinking of writing (“That's a terrible name for a detective. Sherlock Holmes?") There are also sly references to John Wayne and Jack the Ripper.
On the opposite end of the spectrum and adding to the zaniness of the whole affair are more modern allusions to Singin’ in the Rain, Midnight Cowboy and the Beatles’ "When I’m 64." Perhaps the most bizarre moment, though, is the usage of The Who’s "Magic Bus" as musical accompaniment during one scene. The whole mish-mash is too odd for words, and I loved every minute of it.
Admittedly, much of my enthusiasm stems from the fact that Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan are two of my favorite performers in the business. After a lackluster performance in I Spy, Wilson is back on track here as the deadpan con artist with the ever-clichéd heart of gold. His deft comic delivery is on full display here, and I laughed a hell of a lot. Don’t get me wrong; by no means does Wilson’s acting in Shanghai Knights compare to some of the other fantastic work he’s done (particularly with Ben Stiller and Wes Anderson), but Roy O’Bannon is still a character that I just find irresistible.
Jackie Chan, of course, in onboard to do precisely what it is that he does best: wild stunts and fantastic action scenes. He continues to exceed those expectations by acting as the comedic straight man in the Wilson/Chan team. His interactions and chemistry with Wilson are genuine and appealing, but making things even better is the fact that fans of Hong Kong cinema get to see the veteran martial arts actor fight with Donnie Yen, the man who stole the show in Iron Monkey. It’s actually a rather interesting dynamic because it’s obvious that Chan and Yen are used to two very different styles of fighting, so much so that at times, Yen actually looks annoyed at the levity. The pairing is a blast to watch nonetheless.
While it could have been awkward and difficult to replace the Lucy Liu character from the first film, Fann Wong is the perfect combination of a woman who is delicate in appearance but packs a wallop of a punch. It’s not really her show, but she does complement the lead performers nicely.
Surprisingly worthy of note is the film’s luxuriant cinematography. Where The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen so soundly failed at capturing the feel of a comic book or graphic novel, Shanghai Knights seems to succeed effortlessly. The color combinations are a feast for the eyes, making the film pretty to watch in the midst of the mayhem. This quality strangely adds a lot to the quirkiness of the end product.
Overall, Shanghai Knights is a big movie with an idiosyncratic, small movie feel to it. Rewarding both for its fine action scenes and its madcap humor, it’s one of the most entertaining movies from the first half of 2003 and certainly deserving of a DVD rental at the very least.
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