Shanghai Knights

shanghai knights

“There’s this new thing they’re starting out in California – moving pictures. There’s no sound, so we don’t have to worry about the language problem, and I think the kung fu stuff could be huge! People are dying for a good action flick,” says Roy O’Bannon, picaresque hero of the Wild West, in grand metanarrative fashion. And what a whirling dervish of a moving picture this is. After a strong outing in Shanghai Noon, a playful riff on ol’ American westerns, the improbable duo of sometime outlaw O’Bannon (Owen Wilson) and Chinese imperial guard cum Nevada sheriff Chon Wang/John Wayne (Jackie Chan) find themselves in ye olde England for a delightful send-up of more cinematic classics and the Victorian Age.

The two up the ante and bet heavily on the witty anachronisms and excessively referential style of the first film. It is a tactic that could seem pretentious and easily wear one out were it not for the rascally appeal of the two leads. Wilson remains the hapless but charming underachiever, always down on in his luck and usually of his own making. As the film opens, O’Bannon has squandered his, and Chon’s, share of the gold from his last adventure and is now a “thirty year old waiter-gigolo” in New York. “Where’s the future in that?” he asks in a moment of existential angst. Chon, it turns out, has weathered success well and is relishing his role as a lawman. The post seems also to have improved his disposition; he is much more agreeable and ever ready with a joke. This plays well to Chan’s strengths as a comedic actor, proving that he doesn’t have to be the straight man. As his character Chon protests, in a culturally aware nod on the part of the writers, “I’m not a sidekick.”

This time, the equal partners team up to retrieve the emperor’s imperial seal. Lord Nelson Rathbone (Aidan Gillen), tenth in line to the throne, has killed the seal’s keeper, who is also Chon’s father, and spirited it away to England. There, he conspires with Wu Chow (Donnie Yen, in an ascot!), the emperor’s bastard brother. Wu needs the seal to usurp his brother, and in exchange, he will use the new Gatling gun, a “testament to British ingenuity,” on the royal family to clear the way for Rathbone’s succession. Chon and O’Bannon team up with Chon’s sister Lin (Fann Wong) and the three are in hot pursuit through the streets of Londontown. Unbeknownst to them, Rathbone and Wu have also enlisted the services of some snarling Boxers, which doesn’t really make sense if you know anything about Chinese history.

The plot is immaterial though because the setting provides nearly two hours of pure entertainment. There are copious references to satisfy the resident film buff. The best of these tributes are a balletic martial arts homage to Gene Kelly’s umbrella dance in Singin’ in the Rain and a replication of the dangling clock tower scene from the silent Safety Last! Additionally, the filmmakers leave room for numerous nods to the Victorian Age. Chon and O’Bannon immediately encounter a little tramp named Charlie, played with mischievous delight by a miniature Aaron Taylor-Johnson, upon their arrival in England. Then after finding themselves locked up in Scotland Yard, which O’Bannon astutely observes is not really a yard, they meet friendly inspector Artie Doyle (Tom Fisher). He uses a new technique called deductive reasoning to solve crimes. Speaking of, the mystery surrounding the fate of Jack the Ripper is also addressed.

But as riotous as a cultural references drinking game would be, the action sequences steal the show. Victorian England proves to be a better playground for Jackie Chan than 19th century Nevada; there are simply more props to play with. Fann Wong even gets her kicks in, a luxury not afforded to Lucy Liu in the first film. The highlight though is the climactic and first ever onscreen fight between Chan and Donnie Yen. Yen is Chan’s most able adversary yet in an American film, both as a martial artist and as an actor. It’s surely worth whatever price you’re paying.

Jackie Chan channels Gene Kelly:

 

Released: 2003
Prod: Jackie Chan, Gary Barber, Roger Bimbaum
Dir: David Dobkin
Writer: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar
Cast: Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Fann Wong, Aidan Gillen, Donnie Yen, Aaron Johnson-Taylor, Tom Fisher, Gemma Jones, Oliver Cotton, Kim Chan, Tom Wu, Anna-Louise Plowman
Time: 114 min
Lang: English, some Mandarin
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2014

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