FILM REVIEW HH
‘Shanghai Knights’ a Good Flick
But a Timeless Classic it Ain’t
Written by Alfred Gough & Miles Millar
Directed by David Dobkin
Starring Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Fann Wong
Writing film reviews is a funny business. Firstly, it’s not a business. I don’t get paid, though I do get to see movies for free. Secondly, I’m often amazed that the things I write even get printed. Then again, I’m always amazed that film reviews I see in other publications get printed. Thirdly, I’m torn about the perspective I should take when I review a film. It is very difficult to balance the pretentious bluster of the classic film critic (“Spielberg’s meditation on the nature of humanity was an a priori puerile experience that ultimately left the viewer cold”) with that guy who likes to tell people which movies sucked and which ones rocked (“Mulholland Drive is worth seeing just for the tits.”)
Two of the four total people out there who read my reviews don’t have the same last name as me. One of these two recently asked me how to distinguish a good film from a good flick. To this inquiry I replied: “You appreciate a good film. You enjoy a good flick.” I thought that sounded pretty darn intelligent.
So I walked into Shanghai Knights with a solid understanding that I was about to see a good flick and not a good film. I greatly enjoyed the flick’s predecessor, Shanghai Noon. But I have no rational explanation for why a film like Rush Hour and its sequel, Rush Hour 2, would be so much more popular than Shanghai Noon.
In the end, I suppose it comes down to your personal impression of the on-screen chemistry of the actors. I don’t really think Jackie Chan has any remarkable chemistry with Owen Wilson in the Shanghai films or with Chris Tucker in the Rush Hour films. However, Wilson and Chan are both made from such unique and volatile solutions that there’s always chemistry in the air when they’re on screen together. Tucker, however, just comes off as corrosive. I imagine that is why one set of movies is so much better than the other.
Shanghai Knights takes the tired fish-out-of-water/buddy flick formula and transplants it from the Old West to London. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact time at which the film takes place, but it seems to be somewhere before the invention of long-distance telephone and after the invention of hair gel. The film’s villain, Lord Rathbone (Aidan Gillen), has much less character than his hair, which takes on such a wild variety of shapes and sheens that each appearance it makes is like its own little mini-adventure.
Likewise, Fann Wong, who plays Chan’s sister in the film, has absolutely gorgeous long, straight, black hair that clearly spent more time rehearsing lines than its owner. In the first Shanghai film, Chan’s own long braided hair served as a weapon, asset and liability all at once, taking a central role in the film as sign of identity as well as an all-purpose prop. This time around, unfortunately, there are no braided hair gags.
In fact, this time the whole outing seems less fresh and funny. Owen Wilson, I maintain, is still one of the great American comedic actors. He made Zoolander worth watching, and he’s the only American so far who can act around Jackie Chan’s remarkably poor English. Chan himself is still the absolute best at what he does, namely, performing impossible stunts, using props in ingenious ways and getting the crap beaten out of him.
But Chan is clearly getting old. The hallmark of any Jackie Chan film is the climactic stunt that’s so outrageous that the director will actually force you to watch it multiple times, from different angles, over and over again until you accept that Chan is some sort of low-order monkey god. For instance, the leap off the clock tower in Project A, or the leap between buildings in Rumble in the Bronx, or any one of a number of jaw-dropping scenes in Police Story. Shanghai Knights completely lacks a stunt of this order. Any stunt that could be of that order is for some reason edited to shreds.
In general, the film suffers the fate that most American movies that feature kung fu suffer. American directors and editors simply don’t know how to frame and present Chan’s style of graceful hand-to-hand fighting appropriately and respectfully. In other words, you never get the full picture of what is happening. In an effort to keep the action going, the camera never lingers on a single motion or attack to let the viewer really appreciate Chan’s cleverness.
In spite of this, there are a few scenes that will impress. Foremost among them in my mind is the whimsical tribute to Singin’ in the Rain, which finds Chan balancing on stacked boxes with an open umbrella in his hand, while kicking his opponents in the face. The scene is a perfect way to highlight Chan’s grace and timing. Film kung fu has always had its similarity to dance in musicals, but seeing it made so explicit is quite entertaining.
To summarize the plot of the movie would be unfair, since its plot is obviously not its strong point. Instead, I suggest you go see the film for Wilson’s charmingly crooked nose, Chan’s famously endearing grimace and Wong’s sensuously hot hotness.