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Enter the Drag

Shanghai Noon goes way out West, but not far enough.

Do not judge Shanghai Noon by its trailer, which serves as the very antithesis of advertising: It begs you to stay far away from any theater showing this film. Laden with dreary sight gags (a horse that stays by sitting...just like a dog) and woeful puns ("Your name is John Wayne?" Owen Wilson asks Jackie Chan. "That's a terriblecowboy name"), the trailer lacks only Leslie Nielsen as a punchline. Not that it does the film an injustice -- indeed, Shanghai Noon is a trifle at best, a lightweight, wink-wink amalgam of myriad other films, some of which have even starred Chan and Wilson -- but the trailer looks more like a commercial for a summer replacement series on ABC. The only thing missing is a laugh track...oh, yes, and laughs.Shanghai Noon is less enervating than its trailer would lead you to believe, but not by much. It will be forgotten moments after the outtakes montage that plays beneath the end credits, replaced by musty memories of such films as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Frisco Kid, Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns, even Wilson's own Bottle Rocket, which he co-wrote and starred in. Shanghai Noon is like the mobster in the witness-relocation program: It has no identity of its own. Such, of course, are the complaints that can be made about any Jackie Chan film made for and released in the States. They're pale imitations of his best films (Police Story, Project A) or imitations of someone else's best films (1991's Operation Condor was a nifty redo of Raiders of the Lost Ark), built upon a foundation of golly-whiz stunts Chan's been doing since his audience was still learning to crawl. Shanghai Noon, a compendium of borrowed kicks and pilfered plots, is no different.

To sum up this film's plot is to recount no fewer than a dozen other Jackie Chan films, none more so than 1998's Rush Hour; indeed, it's likely that Shanghai Noon was written in the same Word document -- though "written" is perhaps too strong a word when "cut and paste" will do. Once more, with feeling, Chan must travel from China to the United States to rescue a kidnapped female, and he must do so with the reluctant assistance of a wise-ass American. The variations on the theme -- in this go-around, the girl is a princess (Ally McBeal's Lucy Liu), and his partner is a white cowboy instead of a black cop -- are nearly beside the point. An urban setting, the Far East or the Wild, Wild West: Locale (and language, for that matter) is rendered moot when Chan unpacks his bags and spoils for a fight.

Chan's character, an imperial guard named Chon Wang, leaves the Forbidden City and arrives in the dusty armpit of Nevada in search of the purloined Princess Pei Pei (Liu, reduced to the background almost immediately); he stumbles across a train robbery being conducted by Roy O'Bannon (Wilson) and his ragtag gang of miscreants and misfits. Roy's a likable rogue, refusing to steal from pretty women; the guy is a giant grin, all teeth and bullshit. But the robbery goes awry -- Roy's an awful crook -- and the two wind up deserted in the desert, with Roy literally up to his neck in the middle of nowhere. It's a nifty way of getting him out of the movie for a long stretch, leaving Chon free to roam the reservation, where he picks up a peace pipe and, after a stoned one-night fling, gets hitched to a character billed only as Indian Wife (Brandon Merrill), who also appears and reappears throughout the film like a screenwriter's afterthought.

Roy and Chon meet again in a bar fight. They discover the princess, working on the railroad, during the third hour (or thereabouts -- maybe it just seems like it). For a film that presents itself as being a brisk good time, it bogs down in cinematic quicksand: A montage (set to inexplicable modern-day music by the likes of ZZ Top and Aerosmith) gives way to a fight scene gives way to a montage gives way to a fight...and on and on, until the repetition grows numbing. Worse, director Tom Dey and his screenwriters (Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, previously responsible for the arid Lethal Weapon 4) can't decide if they've made a parody or a tribute, so they split the difference -- which amounts to a tepid, smug ripoff. It has neither the guts to play as all-out farce nor the smarts for paying homage: Imagine the horrific spawn created by breeding Blazing Saddles with Silverado.

By all rights, this film belongs to Wilson -- and not just because he's already written some of it. The actor, who looks like a cross between a young Dennis Hopper and a prewreck Montgomery Clift, has had a most inexplicable career post-Bottle Rocket. He's not a star; he's a statistic, winding up beaten (The Cable Guy) or dead (Armageddon, Anaconda, The Haunting) in most of the films in which he's appeared. Save for The Minus Man, a lugubrious anti-thriller in which he plays a drifter who kills with kindness (he offers his victims a tasty, nonviolent poison), he's appeared in films so far beneath him that he needs a parachute to reach the set.

Brother and Bottle Rocket co-star Luke has fared no better, but his bad luck can be blamed on his good looks: Luke, hiding behind blank brown eyes, is easy to underestimate. Owen, on the other hand, possesses a far deeper, darker talent; his aw-dude exterior hints at a stormy interior, a sort of calm brutality within. But Tom Dey, a first-time director more concerned with stunts and speech coaches, has little interest in such bothersome things as characterization and nuance. Shanghai Noon's Roy bears more than a passing resemblance to Bottle Rocket's Dignan: Both men dream of being outlaws, when in truth they can't even load a gun. Roy's such a mess that even the villainous Marshall Van Cleef (Xander Berkeley) can't believe he's chasing this guy. "How do you survive out here?" wonders Van Cleef -- whose name pays homage to Leone heavy Lee Van Cleef. Roy's delighted when he finds his name and picture on a Most Wanted poster, though he's disappointed to find Chon is worth more and has a nifty nickname -- Shanghai Kid -- to boot. Roy imagines himself some figure in a history book; the punchline, revealed in the film's final scene, is that he is. Wilson's laconic energy keeps the film moving; he's breezy enough to carry this tissue paper till the very end.

Chan, on the other hand, is the closer who's lost five miles an hour off his fastball; it's not enough to render him expendable, but it's just enough to make him vulnerable. The 46-year-old looks as though he's moving in slow motion -- which is even played for gags in one scene, when he throws tomahawks at two Native American baddies, who snatch them from the wind and hurl them right back. In the post-Matrix era, his feats seem somehow tame, even cute -- holdovers from a simpler era, when a man didn't need wires and stop-action, digitized tricks to prove his merit. What's dazzling about Jackie Chan is that he can still move at all.

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