Yippie-ki-kung-fu! Jackie Chan rides tall in the saddle — when he isn’t busy running up walls, bounding over bad guys and generally kicking up a fuss — in “Shanghai Noon,” a high-concept action-comedy that may score an even bigger box office bonanza than 1998’s “Rush Hour,” the Asian superstar’s first American produced hit. Owen Wilson (“Armageddon,” “Bottle Rocket”) adds to the fun with an immensely appealing breakthrough performance, and first-time feature helmer Tom Dey does a canny job of bringing out the best in each of his odd-couple leads. Set for a May 26 North American release as counter-programming to “Mission: Impossible 2,” this enjoyable East-meets-Western likely will succeed on its own terms as a sure-fire, long-legged crowd-pleaser. Pic should also lasso strong international B.O. and ancillary biz.
Opening scenes unfold in the manner of a slow wind-up for a fast pitch. In China’s Forbidden City, circa 1881, princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) opts to avoid an arranged marriage by running off to the Wild West with her American tutor (Jason Connery). A meek imperial guard, Chon Wang (Chan), is unable, or unwilling, to hinder her departure, apparently because he has a crush on the royal beauty.
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Unfortunately, the tutor isn’t all that he seems, and the princess winds up held for ransom in Carson City, Nev.
Meanwhile, back at the palace, Chon begs for permission to accompany three other imperial guards charged with delivering a fortune in gold to princess Pei Pei’s captors. His request is approved only because Chon’s uncle is the royal interpreter (Henry O) who’s going along for the ride.
Flash forward to the Nevada desert, where Roy O’Bannon (Wilson), a small-time outlaw who fancies himself a living legend, leads his gang in a train robbery. Yes, you guessed it: Chon, the royal interpreter and the other three imperial guards just happen to be traveling aboard the train.
During the hold-up, Wallace (Walton Goggins), the newest member of the bandit gang, defies Roy’s ironclad rules against unnecessary roughness and fatally shoots Chon’s uncle. During an ensuing scuffle — Chan’s first opportunity in pic to demonstrate his fleet-footed martial artistry — Chon and Roy are inadvertently bounced from the train, cueing the inevitable evolution of bitter enemies into fast friends.
From the moment Wilson first opens his mouth, sounding more like a mild-and-hazy surfer dude than a dead serious West Wild outlaw, the makers of “Shanghai Noon” indicate that period verisimilitude isn’t going to be a major priority. In the unlikely event that the audience doesn’t immediately snap to the joke, Dey drives the point home during the first full-scale fight scene, a barroom brawl set to the beat of ZZ Top’s “La Grange.”
Writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar resort to historical accuracy only when it serves their purpose: In Carson City, the princess is hidden in plain sight among the multitudes of Chinese laborers working on railroad construction. Lo Fong (Roger Yuan), the villainous ex-imperial guard responsible for her abduction, threatens to kill scores of those workers if she tries to escape.
“Shanghai Noon” may look like a conventional Western — Dan Mindel’s impressive widescreen lensing would pass muster in any serious sagebrush saga — but pic most certainly isn’t an old-fashioned cowboys-and-Indians story.
For one thing, the cowboys are somewhat smaller than life: Chon can barely manage to mount or dismount his horse, and Roy turns to outlawry only because he thinks being a bank robber is a cool way to attract girls.
As for the Indians, the Sioux tribespeople on view here are rendered as bemused sophisticates, not blood-thirsty savages. After he presents his daughter to Chon as a reward for valorous behavior, the chief (Russel Badger) expresses misgivings about the “marriage.” “Don’t worry,” a friend says, “it could be worse. He could be a white guy.”
When they’re jailed for their part in the aforementioned barroom brawl, Ray and Chon agree to put their differences aside and plan to rescue princess Pei Pei. To be sure, Ray’s motives are less than altruistic — he offers his assistance primarily to get his hands onat least part of the ransom.
But he finds himself warming toward Chon, especially after Chon’s Native American “wife” (Brandon Merrill) breaks them out of jail. Ray teaches the imperial guard how to handle six-shooters — and how not to handle his liquor.
In return, Chon saves Ray from a premature demise at the hands of a corrupt sheriff (Xander Berkeley) whose name — Van Cleef — is a sly tribute the late Spaghetti Western star Lee Van Cleef.
(It’s worth noting, by the way, that Lee Van Cleef numbered among the bad guys who went gunning for Gary Cooper in “High Noon.” Coincidence? Probably not.)
As usual, Chan is nothing less than poetry in motion, evidencing graceful exuberance in his physical comedy and cunning inventiveness in his fight scenes. At various points in “Shanghai Noon,” he uses horseshoes, tree limbs, moose antlers and even a sheriff’s badge as props in combat.
Appreciably more at ease with English here than he seemed in “Rush Hour,” Chan radiates enough megawatt charisma to power a mid-size city, and gives the impression of someone who’s generously sharing the fun while he’s having the time of his life.
Wilson is a perfect foil, reacting with equal measures of amusement and amazement each time Chan opens up a can of whup-ass on an outmatched opponent. The beauty of his performance isWilson makes it abundantly clear that Ray, not Chon, is the real fish out of water. For all his bold talk about becoming a babe magnet by earning notoriety as a bandit, Ray is singularly ill-qualified to be an outlaw — he’s basically too laid back and easygoing, which Wilson underscores by bringing a nice touch of stoner insouciance to many of his line readings.
When Ray and Chon become wanted men, Chon is the one who gets a bigger price on his head, much to Ray’s frustration: “A thousand-dollar reward for a sidekick? That’s not fair.” Ray remains convinced that Chon Wang is a terrible name for a cowboy. No kidding.
Lucy Liu doesn’t have much to do as princess Pei Pei, but she rises to the occasion when it’s her turn to give a good swift kick to a bad guy. Brandon Merrill has even less to do as Chon’s Indian bride. In fact, her character simply disappears for long stretches, reappearing only when the two leads need to escape a jail cell or a public execution.
Other supporting players, including Yuan and Berkeley, fare slightly better in less sketchy roles.
Once he gets the premise established and the plot humming, director Dey — a veteran of TV commercials — does a bang-up job of keeping things fast, furious and, quite often, very, very funny. It helps a lot that he’s able to afford a top flight production team to give the pic an attractive polish.
But it helps even more that his two leads generate the kind of potent chemistry money can’t buy. Little wonder that a “Shanghai Noon II” already is in the planning stages.