Propelled by potent chemistry between Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson, “Shanghai Knights” proves that, sometimes, bigger actually can be better. A hugely entertaining and more lavishly mounted follow-up to 2000’s “Shanghai Noon,” the high-concept East-meets-Western that first teamed top-billed duo, pic rides even taller in the saddle as a fleet and funny crowd-pleaser. Sequel should easily top $57 million domestic gross of its predecessor, which continues to be popular as homevid product and cable-TV staple, and score significantly better in global and ancillary markets.
Cleverly extending franchise they established in “Noon,” scripters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (the duo behind TV’s “Smallville”) begin with a rousing riff of deadly serious kung-fu action in 1887 China, then brighten the mood while re-introducing odd-couple lead characters.
Chon Wang (Chan), an improbably transplanted Imperial Guard from China’s Forbidden City, is gainfully employed as sheriff of Carson City, Nev. But when he receives word from Lin (Fann Wong), his younger sister, that their father (Kim S. Chan) was killed by palace invaders who swiped the emperor’s Imperial Seal, Chon journeys to New York to contact his former saddle buddy, Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson).
Since their first adventure, Roy has made himself globally famous by pseudonymously penning dime novels that celebrate his own apocryphal exploits as Wild West hero. In real life, however, he’s only a waiter (and, occasionally, gigolo) in a swanky hotel. Unable to provide financial backing, but more than willing to go along for the ride, Roy joins Chan for a voyage to London, where Lin has followed her father’s killer.
Assuming directorial reins from “Noon” helmer Tom Dey, David Dobkin (“Clay Pigeons”) deftly juggles broad comedy and kung-fu artistry in fish-out-water scenario. Last time, Chon was stranger in a strange land. In “Knights,” both characters must scramble to maintain equilibrium in unfamiliar territory.
Pair wander through credibly replicated Victorian London — pic was shot largely on Czech locations — while tangling with two politically ambitious plotters: Lord Rathbone (Aidan Gillen), a conniving nobleman who’s not content being 10th in line to the British throne; and Wu Chan (Donnie Yen), the Chinese emperor’s illegitimate brother, who plans to use the Imperial Seal in attempt to rally a revolution.
Lin — like her brother, a master martial artist — helps our heroes in their quest and, predictably, attracts seriously funny interest from a lovestruck Roy. Budding romance causes brief friction between buddies, since Chon, quite understandably, wants a more suitable husband for his sibling.
For most part, though, pic places more importance on cultural-clash comedy — Roy never misses a chance to remind Brits who won the American Revolution — and action set-pieces in such varied locales as Big Ben, a dark corner of Whitechapel (where Jack the Ripper makes a cameo appearance) and Madame Toussaud’s Wax Museum.
In the world according to “Shanghai Knights,” anachronisms are a way of life, and period flavor is never allowed to get in the way of good laugh. Even more than “Noon,” which peppered its soundtrack with singles by ZZ Top and Kid Rock, sequel often sounds like wall-to-wall oldies radio, wittily employing location-specific pop tunes (Roger Miller’s “England Swings,” New Vaudeville Band’s “Winchester Cathedral”) as scene bridges, and more rambunctious rockers (including tasty remixes of the Who’s “Magic Bus” and “My Generation”) to underscore comic high jinks.
Amiably reprising the mild-and-hazy surfer-dude patois he used in “Noon,” Wilson seems even more incongruous here. But, once again, his nifty mix of insouciance, self-regard and semi-stoned action-heroism is terrifically appealing. Likewise, Chan repeats what worked well in previous pic — exuberance and grace laced with sincerity and resilience — while upping the ante in regard to razzle-dazzling acrobatics in imaginatively choreographed fight scenes, which come off like song-and-dance highlights from an Old Hollywood tuner. Impression is reinforced during one especially inspired sequence, as Chan offers a tip of the Stetson to Gene Kelly by using umbrellas as offensive weapons while “dancing” to a sample of “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Spirited homage is one of many cheeky pic allusions that abound in “Shanghai Knights.” Breezily amusing epilogue makes pointed reference to newfangled phenom of “moving pictures” in a place called Hollywood.
Singapore-born singer-actress Fann is easy on the eyes and quick in her moves, which is all her character requires. Thomas Fischer makes the most of a slyly written part as a deductive Scotland Yard inspector who just happens to be a big fan of Roy O’Bannon novels. Aaron Johnson evidences poise but has relatively little to do as a Cockney street urchin who helps the leads.
As the silken Lord Rathbone — who, like first pic’s Sheriff Van Cleef, is a bad guy named after an actor famed for villainous roles — Gillen (Showtime’s “Queer as Folk”) looks like a younger, pastier Gary Oldman, and proves to be a surprisingly good sport during climactic sword fight with Chon.
Adrian Biddle’s widescreen lensing is strikingly handsome, while other tech credits — including Allan Cameron’s evocative production design — also contribute to slickly impressive package.