2003, PG-13, 114 min. Directed by David Dobkin. Starring Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Aaron Johnson, Thomas Fisher, Aidan Gillen, Fann Wong, Donnie Yeb.
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., Feb. 14, 2003
The casual anachronisms and historical/geographical inaccuracies in Shanghai Knights, the martial arts buddy comedy set in Victorian England, are either an irritation or its saving grace, depending on your perspective. If you’re the kind of person who cringes when a movie taking place in 1887 uses the Who’s "Magic Bus" in its soundtrack or locates Stonehenge just outside of London, then Shanghai Knights will likely annoy you. On the other hand, if you’re the type of moviegoer who finds the idea of 19th-century characters using phrases such as "Be cool" and "You must work out" in their conversations, this is the film for you. A sequel to Shanghai Noon, this second pairing of Chan and Wilson as mismatched turn-of-the-century adventurers Chon Wang and Roy O’Bannon is not without its slight charms, although its overall lack of polish relegates it to nothing better than B-movie status. The plot, which focuses on the duo’s mission to avenge the murder of Wang’s father by an English lord, strives for some element of emotional depth, but it’s inconsequential in the end. For the most part, all this movie has going for it are the improbable relationship between these two opposites and Chan’s occasional artistry in the martial arts. On the first count, there is something undeniably amusing about the pairing of straight man Chan with Wilson’s surfer-boy persona, although it’s not as funny as the filmmakers often think it is. As an actor in American films, Chan is hamstrung by his limitations in the English language – face it, he’s here because he’s a wizard when it comes to the action sequences, some of which are amazingly inventive in Shanghai Knights. While a Keystone Kop-inspired tussle early in the film seems half-realized, a subsequent riff on Singin’ in the Rain using an umbrella in a London open-air market is just wonderful. (Another fight sequence, in which the bad guys are loath to break their boss’ priceless Oriental vases, is just as clever.) Wilson more than makes up for Chan’s linguistic shortcomings in his role of the self-described "30-year-old waiter-gigolo" who is never at a loss for words. Wilson’s California-stoner delivery may be the film’s best joke, although it wears thin toward the end. Director Dobkin does a serviceable job here, despite the script’s lapses and dreadful CGI shots, even finding time to pay homage to films as disparate as Harold Lloyd’s silent classic Safety Last and the ultimate buddy movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Those film references, however, are a mixed bag. Undoubtedly, the moviegoers most likely to appreciate such hommages are the same moviegoers who will find the film’s goofy references to "low self-esteem" and the "Okie From Muskogee" something close to intolerable.