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Lost in time

Shanghai Knights squanders Chan-Wilson teamwork

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One positive thing you can say about Shanghai Knights -- and it's pretty much the only one -- is that the movie "gets" Jackie Chan. The Shanghai Noon sequel understands that Chan's singular brand of stunt work owes as much to the physical comedy of classic silent film as it does to kung fu fighting. Whenever Chan gets his hands on props, Knights has the sense to stay out of his way.

Thus we get the pleasure of watching Chan outmaneuver a trio of Keystone Kops in a revolving door; spin a ladder like a lazy Susan on a library table; flummox a thug by handing him one Ming Vase after another; and win an elaborate brawl in what appears to be London's Umbrella and Fruit Cart district. Thanks to the popularity of Chan's films and the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hollywood gets a little better every year at filming and editing Hong Kong-style action scenes, giving them more clarity and coherence. In this respect, Knights' fights mark a vast improvement on its predecessor.

The movie's downside is nearly everything else. Again, Chan finds a good foil in Owen Wilson's reluctant man of action, but Knights would be a delight if it only gave them a script. Instead, the film's grab bag of Brit-bashing cliches and modern anachronisms leave you sick at heart.

A few years after the events of Noon, Knights begins in China's Forbidden City, where Chan's father gets murdered by a team of English and Chinese goons. Chan's vengeful sister (Fann Wong) tracks them to England, and Chan drops his successful gig as a Wild West sheriff to join her. En route he hooks up with his old cohort Roy O'Bannon (Wilson), who squandered the reward money he got in the first film on printing self-aggrandizing pulp books with titles like Roy O'Bannon vs. The Mummy.

Throughout, Wilson appealingly plays the audience surrogate. When Chan says his father was the Keeper of the Imperial Seal, Roy exclaims, "That's what I love about China -- everybody's job description sounds so cool!" Wilson's sun-baked beach bum delivery, like Chris Tucker's motor-mouthed jive in the Rush Hour films, provides a nice comic balance to Chan's physical fluency but inelegant English.

Alas, when the duo arrives in Victorian London the film stoops to tourist-style jokes even more shameless than Austin Powers: put-downs about bad teeth, damp weather, Spotted Dick and teasing Buckingham Palace guards. On top of that, the English accents are so broad that they sound fake even when delivered by English actors.

As the pair contend with a scheming English aristocrat (Aidan Gillen) and a scheming Chinese aristocrat (Donnie Yen of the Iron Monkey movies), Knights' standard for humor plummets with every passing minute. Wilson and Chan have a pillow fight in a brothel and attend a fancy dress ball in absurd, feathered disguises, claiming to be Maj. Gen. Sherlock Holmes and the Maharaja of Nevada. When 20th-century pop songs like "The Magic Bus" and "One (Is the Loneliest Number)" turn up as punchlines on the soundtrack, you can almost smell the desperation to provide laughs.

Nothing reflects the film's narrative sloppiness more than its treatment of history. An introductory title tells us that it's set in 1887, the actual date of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee (which coincides with the villains' evil scheme). But Knights also refers to Jack the Ripper (in action in 1888), Charlie Chaplin (born in 1889) and Hollywood as a motion picture mecca. Granted, Shanghai Knights isn't meant to be educational, so why not provide no date at all instead of a wrong one?

Knights' action scenes from director David Dobkin amount to poor compensation for the film's lunkheaded thinking. Fann Wong lets her hair cascade prettily around her face, and Donnie Yen is a terrific martial artist in his own right, yet both go underused. That Shanghai Knights botches such a promising pop formula feels as glaring as England's own loss of the American colonies.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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