Getting His Kicks In

Jackie Chan pays homage to stars of the past with his pleasing combination of stunts and slapstick in 'Shanghai Knights.'

Movie Review

February 07, 2003|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC



As the reluctant cowboy hero known as "the Shanghai Kid" or Chon Wang (pronounced "John Wayne"), Jackie Chan has developed a warm, mellow ruefulness that humanizes both his own outlandish stunts and Owen Wilson's drawling, satiric slacker mannerisms as inept gunslinger Roy O'Bannon. In Shanghai Knights, Chan keeps earning our good will even when the material is beneath him.

This sequel to Shanghai Noon takes the East-West odd couple to London in search of the man who killed Wang's father. It's a gimcrack assemblage of gags, action scenes, favorite moments from the first hit and diorama-like views of high and low Victorian culture. Released by Disney's Touchstone division, it harks back to Disney kiddie adventures of the '50s and '60s, albeit with Wilson's randy Roy supplying middle-school sauciness.

Audiences hungry for silliness may give in to the jolly, picturesque set pieces and the facetious plot that inserts guest celebrities such as Jack the Ripper, Queen Victoria, an acrobatic street urchin named Charlie and a deductive detective and writer named Artie. They may even accept a compilation of soundtrack songs including the work of the Zombies and the Who, and a combination of villains that includes an English nobleman who's 10th in line for the throne; a bastard heir to the Chinese emperor; and those violent Chinese nationalists, the Boxers.

At best, hoary gimmicks like a fireplace revolving in and out of a secret room, or portraits with spy-holes where eyes should be, will tap nostalgia in older viewers or strike younger ones as brand new. The director, David Dobkin, and writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, want to conjure the slaphappy tone of Hope and Crosby or Abbott and Costello pictures. But you don't achieve any tone, even "slaphappy," simply by slapping things together.

All that fuses this film's rickety parts is Chan's immense amiability as a presence and his go-for-broke ingenuity and enthusiasm as an artist. Chan has always acknowledged the influence of the great silent clowns (Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd) and the original movie-action hero, Douglas Fairbanks Sr. In Shanghai Knights he riffs on all of them. A hanging-by-the-clock gag out of Lloyd precedes a ride-down-a-flag stunt out of Fairbanks. He pays homage to Gene Kelly, too, in an umbrella fight-turned-dance set to the music of Singin' in the Rain.

At this point in Chan's career, when he can't help showing some of the sweat behind his athletics, you respond to his naked exertion and emotion. He still takes huge chances (demonstrated in his usual assemblage of out-takes over the closing credits) but it's as satisfying to see him create swift and clever slapstick out of props like precious vases as it is to see him vault through the air.

To compensate for the absence of Lucy Liu, who played Chon Wang's Chinese-princess true love in Shanghai Noon, and Brandon Merrill, who played Chon Wang's Native American wife and Roy's secret admirer, Singapore singer-actress Fann Wong appears as Chon Wang's sister. She supplies some Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon high kicks and romantic interest for Roy.

For my money, Wilson's funniest moment in either movie comes when Roy sees Chon Lin surge into action and realizes "she could fight my battles for me."

That's what Jackie Chan does for Owen Wilson in these movies, too. Chan's beaming focus slices through Wilson's farcical tall tales and mammoth wool gathering. The movie may have a waxworks supporting cast - indeed it's hard to tell the actors from the waxworks in one scene. But it still has Chan, doing what his silent heroes did. As he said in I Am Jackie Chan (the 1997 autobiography he wrote with Jeff Yang), he, like them, keeps "falling and flying, climbing and tumbling, using bodies to make miracles on screen."

Shanghai Knights

Starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson

Directed by David Dobkin

Released by Disney/Touchstone

Rated PG-13

Time 114 minutes

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