Shanghai Noon is hardly as enervating as its trailer, which has such dreary sight gags and woeful jokes that it begs you to stay far away from any theater in which this film is screening. (Sample: A horse that stays by sitting . . . just like a dog.)But don't expect a lot from Jackie Chan's latest. It's a trifle at best, a lightweight, wink-wink amalgam of other films, some of which have even starred Chan and his co-star, Owen Wilson. 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 United 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 gee-whiz stunts Chan's been doing since his audience was 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 less than a dozen other Jackie Chan films, none more so than 1998's Rush Hour. 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 Roy and Chon wind up deserted in the desert; Roy, quite literally, is 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).
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Roy and Chon meet up again in a bar fight and discover the princess, working on the railroad, during the third hour (or thereabout -- 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 rip-off. It has neither the guts to play as all-out farce nor the smarts for paying homage.
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 antithriller in which he plays a drifter who kills with kindness, he's appeared in films so far beneath him he needs a parachute to reach the set.
Owen possesses a dark talent; his aw-dude exterior hints at a stormy interior, a sort of calm brutality within. Dey, a first-time director more concerned with stunts and speech coaches, fails to exploit Owen's possibilities; Dey seems to have little interest in such bothersome things as characterization and nuance. But Wilson's laconic energy keeps the film moving. He's breezy enough to carry this tissue paper 'til 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. And 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.