Shanghai Knights Review
Is there a more likeable team in the movies today than Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson? In Shanghai Knights, the chemistry between Chan's earnest man of honour and Wilson's laid back rogue turns a throwaway sequel into one of the most purely enjoyable films of the year so far. It was too depressing to watch them wasted, playing second fiddle to special effects in The Tuxedo and I Spy so it comes as a relief that Shanghai Knights director David Dobkin and screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar understand the appeal of their stars and have the sense to put them centre stage and allow them to do what they do best.
Gough and Millar's script wisely gets most of the plot out of the way in the first half-hour. The film opens in China's Forbidden City in the late 19th century where Chon Wang's father (Kim Chan) and sister (Fann Wong) work in the imperial palace, guarding the emperor's seal, the symbol of his power. When the seal is stolen by thieves led by the evil Lord Rathbone (Aidan Gillen) and Chon's father is murdered, his sister Lin tracks Rathbone to his home in London. Learning what's happened, Chon (Jackie Chan) is determined to retrieve the seal and avenge his father. He leaves his job as a western sheriff and visits his old partner Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson) in New York to pick up his share of their fortune. Unfortunately Roy has lost the lot and is now making a living as a waiter and part-time gigolo. Feeling guilty, Roy agrees to help his friend find the stolen seal and the pair travel to England.
That's a lot of set-up but mercifully, once the pair set foot in London, it comes down to a simple quest to get the seal back from Rathbone, who is trading it for the help of an evil Chinese exile (Donnie Yen) with his own plan to depose Queen Victoria and become king. Incidentally, the villain in this month's other action comedy, Johnny English, also wants to replace the Queen and rule England. Perhaps someone should explain to movie villains that the British monarchy hasn't actually ruled the country since the 17th century and they'd be better off getting into politics and running for prime minister. Meanwhile Chon and Roy enlist the help of a Scotland Yard detective (Tom Fisher) and a young street urchin (Aaron Johnson) and Roy falls for the beautiful Lin, much to her brother's dismay.
All of this provides the necessary springboard for Chan and Wilson to banter and bicker from action scene to action scene. Most of the talking is done by Wilson, in his patented spaced-out surfer drawl. The feckless, cheerfully amoral Roy, who finds it moving when a prostitute offers him a discount, is the perfect character for him. When he's not playing Wilson's indignant straight man, which he does very nicely, Jackie Chan gets much more opportunity to strut his stuff than he normally does in his American films and it can't be a coincidence that this is the first Hollywood outing for which he's done his own choreography. And does it show! Some sequences are so beautifully done, you want to applaud. Rather than just go for straight martial arts, Chan's taken the opportunity to pay tribute to classic Hollywood showmanship, throwing in references to the Keystone Cops, Singing In The Rain and Indiana Jones and there's a neat and very appropriate in-joke at the end.
It's Chan and Wilson's show and the supporting cast have little chance to steal it from them but Chinese star Fann Wong should appeal to the boys who lusted over Crouching Tiger's Zhang Ziyi. Aidan Gillen, an Irish actor best known for Queer As Folk, is agreeably hissable though Hong Kong fans may be disappointed that Donnie Yen has very little to do. Tom Fisher and Aaron Johnson, playing those traditional English stereotypes, the posh twit and the cheeky cockney, are less annoying than they could have been. At least the kid is never sentimentalised, in fact the insensitive Roy even makes fun of him for being an orphan. Later, in the out-takes that play at the end, we see Wilson cracking up and exclaiming in disbelief, "That is so mean!" But it's funny because it's so unexpected and inappropriate. Sequels rarely do anything unpredictable and that's why Shanghai Knights is such a delight, you never know what it's going to do next. I preferred it to the first movie because it's less concerned with telling a story and more interested in making us laugh. It succeeded. I walked out with a big grin on my face, looking forward to a third installment.