SHANGHAI NOON, directed by Tom Dey, written by Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, produced by Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum and Jonathan Glickman, with Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Lucy Alexis Liu, Curtis Armstrong and Sammo Hung. A Buena Vista release. 96 minutes. Opens Friday (May 26). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 82. Rating: NN
All props to Jackie Chan. N'Nuff respect every time to the hardest-working man in show business. He's the kind of one-man movie industry that Hollywood stopped producing back when sound came in.
Over his 30-year career, Chan has topped the box office in both action and comedy. He's directed, written and produced his films. And he's overseen prestige projects he could never have appeared in himself, like Sylvia Chang's Tempting Heart and Stanley Kwan's Rouge.
So on Shanghai Noon, I cut him a little slack.
For me, the films Chan's made in America carry the elegiac weight of Chaplin's sound films. They might be sharp crowd-pleasers like Rush Hour, or slap-happy crowd-pleasers like Shanghai Noon, but they mark an honourable struggle. This movie, sloppy as it is, shows a titan trying to change with new circumstances.
It's no accident that Chan's American movies all turn on fish-out-of-water plots. That's how most immigrants to Hollywood, from Garbo to Jet Li, announce their arrival. But Chan's favourite story isn't about fitting in, it's about landing in America as the stranger in town, and immediately hooking up with other strangers.
Chan is the new guy in school who instinctively gravitates to the unpopular kids. His American movies are his own version of outsider art. Strange, since the mainstream audience loves him.
Shanghai Noon begins in China's Forbidden City, 1881. Chan plays a member of the imperial guard, parading around the palace and looking mighty fierce. But he empathizes with the lonely princess, who passes the time in her gilded cage learning English. This is the first of many rusty plot points that creak as the film moves along.
Kidnappers soon swipe the princess and carry her off to California, where she joins thousands of Chinese forced to work building the railroad. Chan joins the rescue team, meets a slacker cowboy (Owen Wilson) and learns to embrace American values. In this movie, those values boil down to thinking for yourself and broadening your social circle.
Hesitant dude When Chan hooked up with Chris Tucker in Rush Hour, he tapped into the black-Asian mutual admiration society that also boosted Romeo Must Die and made millionaires of the Wu Tang Clan. Ice Cube's movie Next Friday mined the same motherlode, finding a countercultural groove in what many wrote off as multiculti correctness.
Chan's co-star in Shanghai Noon is a hesitant bandit dude who looks like the Sundance Kid and talks like Kato Kaelin. He's a self-doubting outlaw who never shuns Chinese and Indians like the other bad guys do. That makes him fit for Chan's band of outsiders.
Some of the best bits in Shanghai Noon have Chan marrying into an Indian family -- as Man Who Fights in a Dress -- and being mistaken for a skin by the white folks. This isn't a movie that's rich with great bits, but most of them hinge on ethnic fusions and confusions.
Laid-back shtick The cowboy stuff is almost irrelevant. Every send-up of frontier heroics has already been done to death. Wilson's laid-back shtick isn't new, so it's a minor miracle that he still manages to hold the screen with it.
Too bad the same can't be said for Lucy Liu, who shows up as the princess. She underplays to a fault, perhaps trying to rub away the smirking veneer she carries from playing Ling on Ally McBeal. But instead, she disappears into the background. If this movie is anything to go on, Cameron Diaz and Drew Barrymore are going to wipe the screen with her in Charlie's Angels.
Nothing in Shanghai Noon lives up to the heights of Jackie Chan's physical genius. But even on the back slope of his action career, he can still cook up stunts that top most of what Hollywood's got. There's a smart little circle-punch routine here that harks back to the old days.
And even at its lamest, it's still a hell of a lot funnier than Wild Wild West.