February 13, 2003

Fish Out of Water

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There are two reasons to see Shanghai Knights: one is if you are taken aback by the ingenuity Jackie Chan has in taking out guys in his films.

Indeed in this sequel to the 2000 release of Shanghai Noon, Chan makes good use of just about everything, including a revolving door, an umbrella, even a lemon. The second reason for seeing Knights would be to learn the true occurrences behind some of history’s unsolved events. A great weight was lifted from my shoulders when Knights informed me that Jack the Ripper was, in fact, fatally karate kicked into the River Thames by Lin (Fann Wong), who is the beautiful but deadly sister of Chon Wang (Chan). It only takes one ogle for Owen Wilson’s character, who is a lady killer (think James Bond meets Earnest) and also a male prostitute, to fall into a deep and penetrating love with Lin.

The movie moves the action from the Wild Wild West to jolly old England, where Chan, with the help of Wilson and Wong, tries to avenge his father’s death. The humor in the film relies on the kind of superficial recognition that would not be over the head of a ten year old. This is a further testament to Owen Wilson’s steep and lucrative decline from the perplexing but cool offbeat humor in Bottle Rocket and acerbic Rushmore to such easily forgotten movies as I Spy. But though Wilson is loquacious and by no means a bad actor, he doesn’t have the skill to pull off the one-liners that Chan’s other movie partner, Chris Tucker, has at his disposal. While Tucker has his own style of comedy (and voice), Wilson, and the rest of the movie for that matter, relies on archetypes that have already been presented to us to the point of overkill. Not only are the jokes recycled but I could have sworn I saw the same mantle turning action sequence that has Chan going from one room to the next while entangled with some henchman in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.

In general the movie travels at a quick pace, and for the most part is consistently entertaining. To its credit the movie knows what the audience has paid to see. After all, who wants to see Jackie Chan act for a prolonged period anyway? We pay to be awed by incredible stunts that we know from the outtakes caused Chan a lot of pain (though rumor has it that Chan is cutting back on his own stunts as his body ages). The film moves so quickly that they don’t even give time for the revenge plot to develop, which is just as well because we know this plot by heart (father dies, son seeks revenge). It is deeply rooted in the kung fu genre.

If anything else the movie is worth seeing for its representation of a Queen Victoria: which bears an unbelievable similarity to paintings of the actual queen in her corpulent stiffness. David Dobkins, who previously directed the bizarre art film Clay Pigeons, teams up with cinematographer Adrian Biddle whose credits include The Butcher Boy and The Princess Bride. However, they are unable to do anything but layer the movie in misplaced allusions which stretch all the way to a Jackie Chan rendition of “Singing in The Rain.”

One worthwhile trait seen in the movie was its sets. The overhead shots of 19th century London sparkled, and the ornate interiors were also attractive. The movie didn’t fail on its identifiable tour of London, which among its stops included derision of the Beef Eaters, Madame Tausad’s, a noteworthy action sequence in Big Ben, and a random and inexplicable detour to Stone Henge for one last awe at recognition. Ok, the English don’t care about their teeth as much as we do, and deep down we all feel that we stand one step above them for winning the Revolutionary War, but the squalid Dickensian kid calling them “Gents” was just a little too much to stomach.

But while one would think that a distinguished cinematographer would be interesting in matching up with Chan, the fight scenes were weaker than in other Chan movies. The fights scenes seemed lower in number than usual and Chan appears to have lost a step, instead relying on Fann Wong, Donnie Yen, and eye opening Aidan Gillen, who looks and acts like a young Gary Oldman. All these actors get their moment in the action spotlight to take some of the pressure off of Chan.

Whether or not you like the movie, the purchasing power of the eager children in the theatre with me and the film’s ending point to yet another sequel. This time Wilson and Chan will be taking their show to Hollywood, so get ready for more improbable stunts, slapstick humor, and allusions to Marilyn Monroe, Bogart, and Cagney.

Archived article by Andrew Altfest