Shanghai Noon
Shanghai Noon USA , 2000. Rated PG-13. 110 minutes.

Cast: Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Lucy Liu, Brandon Merrill, Roger Yuan, Xander Berkeley, Guang Chu Rong, Walt Goggins, Ya Hi Cui, Eric Chen
Writers: Miles Millar & Alfred Gough

Music: Randy Edelman

Cinematographer: Daniel Mindel

Producers: Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, Jonathan Glickman

Director: Tom Dey


Grade: B Review by Dana Knowles

The folks behind the marketing campaign for Shanghai Noon ought to be taken out back and spanked. After reluctantly dragging myself to the cloyingly infantile slapstick western I presumed it to be from the trailer, I was surprised to discover a sweet-natured comic trifle that–while admittedly aiming low in terms of serious artistic achievement–aims primarily to please, and hits that mark with admirable regularity. This is a film that mines its modest treasures by way of tone, which makes the misrepresentation in those advertisements doubly egregious. Instead of frenetic, moronic, and silly, the real Shanghai Noon is laid-back, wry, and charmingly absurd. Big difference.

Hong Kong megastar Jackie Chan (Rush Hour, Rumble in the Bronx) puts his cuddly charisma front-and-center as Chong Wang, a member of the Imperial Guard in 1880s China. Smitten with the luminous Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu), he is heartbroken to discover that she plans to skip out on her duties (including an impending arranged marriage) by sneaking away to America with her tutor. Soon thereafter, the Emperor receives a ransom note demanding that an enormous stash of gold be delivered to Carson City, Nevada to secure the return of the Princess. Chong convinces the Emperor to let him go along as a bag-carrier for his uncle (an english-speaking interpreter), and thus his Old West adventure begins. 

While traveling by train, Chong tussles with a band of outlaws headed by Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson), a remarkably mellow train-robber with a distaste for aggression, an eye for the ladies, and an oddly endearing lack of self-awareness. Separated after their initial encounter, the pair are later reunited by chance, which ignites a brawl... landing them in the same jail cell. From there, they join forces to escape, remaining together to find and rescue the princess. The plot is workable, but not terribly interesting. That really doesn't matter much, however, because the movie exists primarily to place the characters into situations that are ripe for interaction, or action, or both. It's a buddy picture through and through, and these guys really manage to make it work.

Wilson (Armageddon, The Haunting, The Minus Man) is terrific as Roy, creating a character that feels absolutely fresh:  cocky in thought, but not in attitude; laid-back, but not "cool"; somewhat deluded, but not stupid; kind-hearted, but not smarmy. Nobody's going to mistake this role for Oscar-bait, but it would be a crime to discount Wilson's exceptional performance merely because of its context. He makes magic out of an adequately amusing (but largely unremarkable) script, and he's not just aping someone else's style. It's safe to say that no other actor would have played Roy the same way. Chan complements Wilson's gracefully precise verbal gymnastics with equally graceful physicality. It's a joy to watch him move. Though known for his inventive and witty fighting style, Chan can make the simple act of scurrying up a scaffold play like an Astaire solo dance. Like Buster Keaton, he moves with an almost indescribable acrobatic fluidity that yields aesthetic pleasure on its own. And though he is not called upon to emote with any complexity or rigor, Chan's performance in dialogue scenes is funny and sweet, and loaded with the effortless charm of a genuine movie star.

Though the supporting actors are all confined to narrow representations instead of characters to play, each brings more than adequate presence to his or her role. Instead of being fleshed-out, their characters are used more as iconic props with which the two leads must fight or otherwise interact. That having been said, both of the central villains (and one other bad guy) are all amusingly rendered, particularly the uber-lawman, Van Cleef (Xander Berkeley), whose facial expression and vocal tone never, ever stray from the one (and only one) of each he seems to have... and they spell t-o-u-g-h. As Princess Pei Pei, Lucy Liu is mostly called upon to affect a haughty (but slightly vulnerable) regal bearing, which she manages just fine. The other female character–the Native-American "wife" of Chong (don't ask!)–is deliberately enigmatic, but does snare our attention when necessary, because she's played by a drop-dead gorgeous actress named Brandon Merrill. The character has almost no dialogue, but her demeanor suggests that she possesses some vital knowledge that the other characters (and even the audience) are not privy to. If Eastwood's Man with No Name had been a woman on the periphery of Leone's stories, she'd be this gal. It's a clever touch, and one that I particularly enjoyed.

First-time director Tom Dey acquits himself quite nicely from start to finish, assuredly staging everything from faux epic-grandeur (the opening sequence in China, the western exteriors) to goofball action (the train chase, the barroom brawl, the climactic battle) with enough style and dramatic edge to hold our interest, in spite of the somewhat lackluster story. In addition, he achieves an air of languid, low-key narrative progression that never really drags or feels ponderous. More remarkably, he manages–against tremendous odds–to establish and retain a rather delicate tone that balances cheerful and sweet without stumbling into the (for me, treacherous) terrain of terminally cute. Dey (via his camera) seems to love these characters and the actors who play them, lighting and framing them for maximum adorability. If Wilson manages to wriggle out of his character-actor cage and into leading man status because of this film, it will be due–in part–to Dey's ability to convey affection for his stars.

Though Shanghai Noon fails to achieve any measure of greatness, it does succeed as lightweight entertainment on its own terms. It's too much of a hodgepodge to qualify as any particular genre. Yes, it's a western... but mostly in terms of riffing on familiar iconography and mythical conventions than actually employing them. Yes, it's an action film... but the action feels more like off-handed (albeit fairly elaborate) punctuation, rather than the driving force behind the production. Yes, it's a comedy... but its gentle manner makes it the antithesis of what "comedy" means to most mainstream moviegoers today. This is not "Adam Sandler Saddles-Up", though the trailer apparently wants you to think so. Rather than serving up a handful of belly-laughs amid assumed-to-be-inherently-hilarious leering vulgarity, Shanghai Noon is content to supply a reasonably steady stream of warm chuckles and the occasional guffaw. For my money, it's a welcome change of pace, though it's only fair to note that not all of the humor works, and that there are probably the same number of clunky thuds as there are guffaws. Fortunately, those moments are few.

In general, Shanghai Noon is too insubstantial and unambitious to really suck you in or stake a claim on your consciousness. As memorable in bits and pieces as it is, it evaporates fairly quickly when the lights come up, though there is a lingering buzz from the sense of having been entertained. And there are additional small pleasures to be found and reflected upon, particularly for movie buffs. Western afficionados will easily recognize homages to earlier films, including (among others) The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, How the West Was Won, and (most obviously) Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Such trivial treats may not be enough to make up for the absence of a truly compelling story, but they certainly help. Shanghai Noon is so light-hearted and ingratiatingly good-natured that it seems churlish to begrudge its wispiness, or to dismiss its successes simply because–with a better script–it might have been more. For maximum pleasure, think of it as a tasty snack... lacking the deep satisfaction and nutritional value of a lavish meal, but still pretty yummy in its junk-food trashiness, and just substantial enough to tide you over until you get another shot at the great stuff.

Review © June 2000 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © © 2000 Buena Vista Pictures Distribution and Spyglass Entertainment Group, LP. All rights reserved.

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