** 1/2 Stars
(US 2000)

Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Lucy Liu, Brandon Merrill

Directed by Tom Dey

Writing credits: Miles Millar, Alfred Gough

Touchstone Pictures *  110 minutes

Screened at: Loews Palisades Center


I enjoy a really fresh fish or great steak as much as the next person. But sometimes, what you want is a greasy hamburger. Similarly, I usually enjoy films that are well-crafted, based on story and character development, with impeccable performances.

But sometimes you just want a Jackie Chan movie.

Kung-fu movies bore me to death, and westerns even more so. And yet, Jackie Chan is an artist whose talent transcends the superbly choreographed fight scenes that dominate his films. A charming screen presence with a sweetness that underlies even his most violent work, he is the finest silent screen physical comic of the sound era. In perhaps his most developed characterization to date, Chan shows that his inspiration is not Bruce Lee's chop-chop fight flicks of the 1970's. Instead, he is a throwback to the great silent film comedy of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon and yes, even Harpo Marx.

In the first of the many fast and furious in-jokes and references to other films, Chan is Chon Wang (say it aloud a few times), one of the more hapless members of China's Imperial Guard. It is 1895, and the Emperor's daughter, the Mel Brooksian-named Princess Pei-Pei, has been kidnapped by her tutor (Jason Connery, utterly forgettable son of Sean) and sold into slavery to an evil slavemaster. It is up to Chon Wang and his three Imperial Guard compatriots to rescue her and bring her back to China and her intended husband, a fat, loutish boy straight out of THE JOY LUCK CLUB. In a meet-cute plot contrivances, he encounters Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson), an equally hapless outlaw who only does it as a chick magnet. Inevitably, they team up to rescue the princess.

This thin, predictable plot serves as a backdrop for not just Chan's formidable physical virtuosity in the martial arts, but also for some genuinely funny jokes and a career-making performance by Owen Wilson, known mostly as a screenwriter, having penned RUSHMORE with buddy Wes Anderson.

At age forty-six, Chan is beginning to show his age facially, though his movements are as beautifully choreographed as ever. Yet Chan need not worry about what he'll do when his body fails him in his famous do-it-yourself stunts, because he is an incredibly charismatic screen presence. Handsome and charming, his halting English may at times be difficult for American audiences to understand, but his acting transcends mere speech. If the soundtrack for SHANGHAI NOON were turned off, we would not miss a bit of Chan's performance. He segues effortlessly from action hero to devoted servant to bewildered fish-out-of water. In the tradition of the silent film greats he so obviously admires, he acts with his face and his body, not with his words. In a hilariously anachronistic peace-pipe smoking scene that implies something other than tobacco is being smoked, Chan channels not only Harpo Marx, but also Woody Allen in the infamous cocaine-sneezing scene in ANNIE HALL.

Owen Wilson, who singlehandedly managed to save THE HAUNTING from Mystery Science Theatre 3000 territory, is a hilariously goofy New Age outlaw. With his off-kilter nose, surfer-boy speech patterns and curling Elvis lips, Wilson is just a shade too cartoonish-looking to qualify for leading man handsomeness, though he does look quite rakish in Western wear. O'Bannon is his creation from beginning to end, and it is a tribute to Jackie Chan's generosity as both a performer and producer that he allows Wilson to steal the film right out from under him. Wilson is Robert Redford's Sundance Kid as rendered by Tex Avery. Whether lamenting that "the other outlaws hated me" after a botched train robbery, trying to talk his way out of self-doubt before a duel, or engaging in a clumsy pick-up attempt on the aforementioned train, O'Bannon is a comic creation worthy of Mel Brooks, but mercifully free of the scatological references.

SHANGHAI NOON is first and foremost a buddy flick, and appropriately, the other performances fade into the background. Despite being able to kick some serious butt towards the end of the film, Lucy Liu has little to do otherwise but sit around being helpless. Roger Yuan is an Asian Lawrence Fishburne, oily and malevolent, as the articulate but evil slavemaster.

The Old West lends itself to shots of sweeping vistas, and SHANGHAI NOON boasts some beautiful scenery, even if marred by an extraordinarily cheap looking shot of Chon Wang atop the Rocky Mountains. On a smaller scale, the bordello scenes are masterpieces of American Victorian excess -- winsome damsels with pneumatic breasts puffed out by comically tight corsets, flocked wallpaper, red everywhere.

The one problem with SHANGHAI NOON is that when its two stars are off the screen, the picture comes to a standstill. Its plot setup is unnecessarily long, although I respect Chan's desire to depict some of the cultural aspects of his homeland, as well as the shameful history of Chinese slave labor in the building of the American railroad. This is a film driven by stunts and jokes, and only when one or both of these phenomena are happening does the film seem paced properly.

SHANGHAI NOON owes a debt to BLAZING SADDLES, as well as being a loving tribute to every serious western ever made, as well a few other film references thrown in for good measure. If at times it seems a remake of the similar Harrison Ford/Gene Wilder "Ethnic In The West" vehicle THE FRISCO KID, it takes itself far less seriously. I myself counted eight references to other films, with more appearing in my mind daily; I'm sure that aficionados of Westerns could find more. If word about SHANGHAI NOON gets around and the "find the references" game takes off, this could be the sleeper hit of the summer.


SMALL TIME CROOKS official site


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Review text copyright © 2000 Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti is prohibited.

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