Chan-Wilson chemistry helps carry hilarious kung-fu Western into 19th Century London
Jackie Chan told me in an interview last year (which I failed to get written up -- sorry!) that the sequel to his kung-fu comedy-Western "Shanghai Noon" was "five times better than the first one." I didn't believe him. Jackie, I apologize.
Riding high on Chan's chemistry with Owen Wilson -- reigning king of the acerbic ad-lib -- "Shanghai Knights" is hilariously tongue-in-cheek and packed with comical homages to everything from the Keystone Kops and Harry Houdini to The Beatles and "Taxi Driver."
Although it might not quite measure up to Chan's claim of quintuple the quality, it is one of those rare multiplex delights: A sequel that bests its predecessor in nearly every way.
After opening with an overly serious prologue in which Chan's Imperial-Seal-guarding father is killed in China, "Knights" finds its footing the moment he turns up on screen as Chon Wang, who is now the butt-kicking sheriff of a frontier town, circa 1887.
In what seems at first like a pretty flimsy plot, he gets word of his father's death and goes looking for his wiseacre old partner Roy O'Bannon (who has since made, and lost, a fortune writing highly fictional pulp Westerns about himself) for a trip to London to meet up with his pretty, young and lethal sister (Fann Wong), who has tracked the killer to the U.K.
Director David Dobkin ("Clay Pigeons") leans heavily on the lively buddy dynamic between his stars, whose banter is a non-stop riot. ("The English aren't very friendly," Chon complains after being bumped in a London street. "Oh, they're just sore losers," opines proud American Roy.) But as the story unfolds, it becomes a silly yet complex layer cake of wild conspiracies and wilder laughs.
It seems the Machiavellian Englishman (a wickedly sneering fellow named Aidan Gillen, forced to sport an oddly period-clashing Sid Vicious haircut) who is responsible for the murder of Chon's father is minor royalty. He agreed to swap slayings (a la Hitchcock's "Strangers On a Train") with an ambitiously evil Chinese nobleman ("Iron Monkey's" terrific, deadpan scowling Donnie Yen) who is now obligated to help him become king by killing everyone in line for the throne before him.
Writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, returning from "Shanghai Noon" as well (after launching the WB's Superman-in-high-school hit "Smallville") provide slapstick and smart remarks at every turn -- and work in a couple surprising cameos by historical figures who play pivotal roles in the story. They also map out the movie's plot threads so that no loose ends remain after the uproarious and exciting sword-fight finale that owes something to Chan's favorite silent film comedian, Harold Lloyd.
Director Dobkin knows his stars' strengths and has a sense of comedic timing that allows each of them off their leashes in exactly the right moments. With the Puckishly charismatic, handsomely crooked-featured Wilson, it's letting the guy be spontaneous (and incongruously modern -- "This country blows," he complains) in take after take, which obviously led to some of the movie's funniest lines.
With Chan it means encouraging him to choreograph his most entertaining fights to date in an American movie -- like the ingenious brawl at a street market, in which Chon Wang weaponizes, among other things, fresh-squeezed lemons and an umbrella in a scene that drolly and very gradually finds a rhythm and becomes a hysterically creative kung-fu tribute to "Singin' In the Rain." This episode is a perfect example of why "Shanghai Knights" is so funny -- it knows how to build slowly to a good joke.
Meanwhile, Roy starts flirting with a pretty girl at a produce booth -- until she smiles, sending him recoiling across the square at the sight of her rotting English teeth.
Subplots abound, including one in which Jack the Ripper's fate is revealed and one in which Roy falls for Chon's sister, much to Chon's chagrin. But all the stories creatively converge in a climax that takes our heroes from Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum to Buckingham Palace to Big Ben in one extended, endlessly amusing and genuinely thrilling fight scene.
If there is a problem with "Shanghai Knights," it's that it takes so many conspicuous liberties with its own time line for the sake of telegraphing various gags -- gags it didn't even need -- that just spotting them becomes very distracting.
One of the real-life characters hadn't even been born when the film takes place (and it's a character so well-known that just about anyone will realize this). Roy and Chon make a getaway in some new-fangled thing called an "auto-mobile" (such motorized transport had just been invented, but the model they drive is from 30 years in the future). And Roy suggests at one point that they run away to Hollywood and become movie stars (motion pictures had yet to be invented, let alone nicknamed and generating a new concept of celebrity).
"Shanghai Knights" could have easily done without any of these superfluous references, which is part of why they bring the movie down ever so slightly. But even a few holes taking on a little water can't stop this incessantly clever action-comedy juggernaut.
Don't forget to stick around for the credit-reel bloopers. They're almost better than that movie itself.