Chan, headfirst into the Old West

Review: The martial arts wizard shows a nice feel for the Butch and Sundance thing in `Shanghai Noon.'

May 26, 2000|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

They ain't Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, but they'll do.

Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson have a great time buddying their way through the Old West in the delightful "Shanghai Noon," the latest chapter in Chan's unstoppable march toward U.S. box-office gold.

The year is 1881, and martial-arts master Chan is Chon Wang, a less-than-honored member of the Chinese Imperial Guard who experiences the misfortune of allowing Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) to be kidnapped from the Imperial City. When the emperor sends three of his most trusted warriors to deliver the ransom money, Chon is able to tag along as a baggage carrier for his uncle, the Imperial Interpreter.

Of course, this being a Jackie Chan film, you know Chon is not destined to remain a baggage handler for long. Soon after the Imperial party arrives in Nevada, they wind up on a train being held up by Roy O'Bannon (Wilson) and his gang. Roy's not exactly a hardened gunslinger -- he's a rotten shot and refuses to steal from pretty ladies -- but he loves saying things that sound tough, and he doesn't mind the easy money.

But things go all kinds of wrong, and Chon's uncle ends up being murdered by Roy's newest recruit, a guy way too bloodthirsty for this gang. All this gives Chan a chance to start kicking and chopping all over the place, which he does with unwavering aplomb. And it puts Chon and Roy into the same frame of film, establishing a pairing that will continue to pay off throughout the movie.

Even though, at 46, Chan's no longer the special effect he once was, he and his films remain energetic marvels. Long renowned for doing his own stunts, Chan cuts down on the number a little bit here, and the outtakes that roll at the end of the film (a Chan trademark) are more line flubs than the usual stunts-gone-awry. But what remains is still marvelous. That's especially true when Chan uses whatever props are handy, which in this case includes everything from a moistened shirt to a pair of evergreen trees to some mounted moose horns.

But as appealing as Chan is, he's matched charisma-for-charisma by Wilson, previously best known as one of a bevy of actors playing second fiddle to the bombastic special effects of "Armageddon." His Roy is a cross between Wyatt Earp and a Beach Boy -- a bad guy, sure, but not so bad that he really wants to hurt anyone. Wilson is all bravado and precious little bite, and he's great fun to watch on screen.

Outlaw and Chinaman don't bond at first -- they didn't exactly meet under the best of circumstances -- but they soon warm to each other. Chon realizes he needs someone familiar with the area and the culture, while Roy likes the idea that these visitors from the East are lugging around a chest full of gold.

So they spend the rest of the film getting into and out of one scrape after another: a bar fight, jail, a hanging, a shootout inside a church. If the film has any real flaw, it's that Chon and Roy are so busy having fun, the film sometimes forgets about poor Princess Pei Pei, who's been forced to work at a slave labor camp. And Lui, who proves every week on TV's "Ally McBeal" that she's an acting persona to be reckoned with, doesn't really get the chance to do much with her role.

Then again, how many people find themselves wishing Butch and Sundance would move offscreen so we can see more of Katharine Ross?

`Shanghai Noon'

Starring Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson and Lucy Liu

Directed by Tom Dey

Released by Touchstone Pictures

Rated PG-13 (action violence, some drug humor, language and sensuality)

Running time 105 minutes

Sun score ***

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