Like its subjects, the movie western is a resilient thing. Its popularity wanes and surges, but it remains ever a part of American culture. Enter Shanghai Noon, a western that does not so much upend things as it does contribute further to American mythology. The pairing of Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson might be unusual, but it is still a movie about outsiders persevering against great odds. And it’s pretty damn funny.
Shanghai Noon avoids turning into a novelty act, though clichés abound. They are modified and used to the film’s advantage, both as a nod to westerns of yore and to establish itself within that genre. Chan as Chon Wang, which sounds suspiciously like John Wayne, is clearly a man on the margins. He is an imperial guard and not a particularly good one. When the princess is kidnapped and held for ransom in Carson City, the bravest guards are sent to rescue her; Chon goes as the imperial baggage handler. He is separated from the others shortly after arriving and tumbles into the vast American wilderness, alone, unaware, and very determined.
Meanwhile, Roy O’Bannon (Wilson) is something of a western misfit, and not just because Wilson looks like he’s on break from a surfing holiday. Roy is a genial outlaw, one who prefers a relaxing night in the company of women to the wild unpredictability of thievery. He would rather talk it out than shoot it out. When a train robbery turns deadly and one of his dim-witted bandits kills Chon’s uncle, Roy abandons his gang, which is too bloodthirsty for his taste. He finds himself also wandering great stretches of Nevada all on his lonesome.
Things don’t go well when the two meet again but hardship does a lot to bridge misunderstanding, even the cultural kind. After they break out of jail together, Roy teaches his new friend a few Wild West survival skills. Chon puts some of these tricks to good use when he demonstrates some of the best lassoing you’re bound to see and saves Roy from the corrupt Marshal Van Cleef (Xander Berkeley). It’s an appropriately twenty-first century friendship, one the writers humorously reinforce. Roy fancies himself a bit liberal in his cultural outlook. During an argument with Chon, he says as a testament to his character, “I had a chance to kill you but I chose not to because I’m not a barbarian!”
The barbarians, it turns out, come from both sides of the map. Van Cleef is in league with Lo Fong (Roger Yuan), a traitor who not only kidnapped the princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) but is also a slave driving foreman of the Chinese railroad workers. Pei Pei doesn’t do much and Liu’s character certainly doesn’t have the bark of some of her other roles, but she still fits the mold of a hearty frontier woman. She sneaks out of China to escape an arranged marriage, only to be betrayed and sent to the railroads to do manual labor like a commoner. Rather than hop the first boat back to China though, Pei Pei insists on staying in America where she can better help others and where, dammit, she’s free! That’s how you enculturate, folks.
The us-versus-them dynamic gets an update and in doing so expands the understanding of “us” and “them.” There is funny moment when Chon finds himself amongst a friendly tribe of American Indians. They don’t understand his language, so he naturally speaks louder and slower, because this has always helped. In the end, they find themselves instead bonding over a universal smoke and drink. The script allows for similarly humorous scenes but a lot of credit goes to Chan and Wilson whose chemistry brings about a slow cultural shift, if only for this film. They are united as friends and partners but also brought together by their failures and solitude. The actors are strongest when they are onscreen together; Wilson brings an affable, lazy charm that complements Chan’s tenacity and principle, and his killer fighting skills.
Prod: Jackie Chan, Gary Barber, Roger Bimbaum
Dir: Tom Dey
Writer: Alfred Gough, Miles Millar
Cast: Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Lucy Liu, Roger Yuan, Xander Berkeley, Brandon Merrill, Walton Goggins, Henry O 區亨利, Yu Rongguang 于榮光
Time: 114 min
Lang: English, some Mandarin
Country: United States