Jackie Chan movies pretty much direct themselves. Or, to be more precise, Jackie Chan movies are pretty much directed by star/producer Jackie Chan. This isn’t a bad thing if you like big set pieces and a thin storyline to thread it all together. And let’s face it, if you bothered to watch “Shanghai Knights”, or any number of Jackie Chan movies, then you know what you’re getting, so I don’t want to hear any complaints.
“Shanghai Knights” re-teams Jackie Chan with Owen Wilson, the less annoying of the Western co-stars Chan has been teamed up with recently. (The other co-star is the irritating Chris Tucker, if you were wondering.) The setting is the American Wild West, although that quickly shifts to 19th century London when Chan’s Chon Wang is informed that his father has been murdered, and that his little sister Lin (Fann Wong) has pursued the killer to England. Joining Wang on the trip overseas is Wilson’s Roy O’Bannon, who has fallen on hard times since the duo last teamed up in the original, “Shanghai Noon”.
In London, the trio goes up against English Lord Rathbone (Aidan Gillen), who is 10th in line to succeed the throne of England. Rathbone has a plan to skip that whole waiting-in-line thing and has stolen a sacred Chinese artifact from China. He plans to give the artifact to exiled Chinese Prince Wu Chow (Donnie Yen), who will in turn kill off the people standing in Rathbone’s way. Of course the evil duo didn’t count on the acrobatic Wang, his high-flying and high-kicking sister Lin, or the comedic sidekick Roy to stop them. Along the way, our trio of heroes picks up the help of a pick pocketing orphan name Charlie Chaplain and an incompetent Scotland Yard inspector name Artie Doyle. (Yes, that Arthur Conan Doyle.)
“Shanghai Knights” is probably about 20 minutes too long for its own good. As a result, there are two long fight-stunts that might have been better excised from the film to give the movie better pacing. The screenplay by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (“Showtime”) is really just a series of sight gags and play on words, with the most obvious in-jokes being Wang and Roy’s supposed inspirations to Doyle’s eventual creation of his famous inspector, Sherlock Holmes, and street urchin Charlie Chaplain supposedly getting inspiration for his tramp act from Wang. It’s all done in good fun, of course, and not to be taken seriously.
The real unheralded star of “Shanghai Knights” is actually Asian pop singer Fann Wong, who wows as the toughest little lady to grace movie screens since Zhang Ziyi’s femme fatale in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”. Not only beautiful, Wong has a charming presence, which explains why the movie really picks up when she’s onscreen, and seems to drag when she disappears. Donnie Yen (“Ballistic Kiss”) plays the villain Wu Chow, but seems to be taking his villain role way too seriously. Guy, it’s a silly action-comedy, relax.
A lot of the film’s comedic moments come out of Roy’s mouth as he goes off on tangents insulting everything about 19th century England. The point the screenplay is trying to make is that Roy is a loudmouth American, completely oblivious to his lack of manners. It works, mostly because Owen Wilson (“Behind Enemy Lines”) knows he’s the comic relief to Chan’s straight man, and really doesn’t go beyond that. (Take note, Chris Tucker.) It’s always worth a chuckle when Roy starts throwing off insults and Wang is in the background rolling his eyes.
“Knights” also features more wirework than one is used to in a Jackie Chan movie, but as I said with Chan’s “The Tuxedo”, I could care less. As previously mentioned, “Knights” goes on for about 20 minutes too long, which ruins the pacing of the movie. A little more cutting and more Fann Wong, and the film could have achieved more pop. In its present incarnation, the movie has enough good chuckles and entertaining fight sequences to keep one satisfied.
Interestingly, the film’s funniest in-jokes appear in the gag reel, which plays at the end of the movie, but doesn’t actually appear in the movie itself.
David Dobkin (director) / Alfred Gough, Miles Millar (screenplay)
CAST: Jackie Chan …. Chon Wang
Owen Wilson …. Roy O’Bannon
Donnie Yen …. Wu Chow
Aidan Gillen …. Lord Nelson Rathbone
Fann Wong …. Chon Lin
Tom Fisher …. Artie Doyle
Aaron Johnson …. Charlie Chaplin