Shanghai Noon

(Tom Dey, USA, 2000)


The trailer for Shanghai Noon makes it look more like a knockabout farce in the style of the '70s Terence Hill-Bud Spencer Westerns from Italy than a well-oiled Jackie Chan action-comedy. And fans of the Hong Kong star may be a little disappointed: there are only a few moments when he gets anywhere near a ladder, loose floorboards or similar props that allow him to display his magical dexterity.

Like Rush Hour (1998), Shanghai Noon splits the main focus between Jackie, who handles the physical pantomime, and a loquacious American actor who provides an endless running commentary. As the sidekick, Owen Wilson (who co-wrote the splendid Rushmore, 1998) turns out to be a real find. In fact, as heretical as this will sound to Chan devotees, Wilson gives this disarming little movie much of its charm and humour.

In his book Planet Hong Kong, David Bordwell argues that Chan, in contradistinction to the intense Bruce Lee, shaped his screen persona to be a "Hong Kong everyman". Often at the very bottom of the social ladder at a story's start, his bumpy, upward path stresses "boundless determination and a good-humoured willingness to suffer."

Accordingly, Chan begins Shanghai Noon as Chon, a lowly guard in the court of Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu). When the Princess is kidnapped and taken to the American West, Chon manages to make the journey, in the hope of helping out. After various misadventures, he finds himself partnered with Roy (Wilson), an over-sensitive, rather scared cowboy who has greedy designs of his own.

As might be expected, Shanghai Noon (directed by newcomer Tom Dey) offers a patchwork of homages to old Westerns. The classic iconography abounds: saloon girls, trains marking out a burgeoning civilisation, a wonderful scene where the leads get drunk and play games while lolling in their respective bathtubs. In a strange subplot, Chon lands himself a Native American wife, like Jeffrey Hunter did in The Searchers (1955). And a highpoint where our incidental heroes face the prospect of hanging recalls Johnny Guitar (1954).

The film's plot is not especially memorable, and its action set-pieces are only occasionally inventive. But its incidental pleasures are many. The running gags about white Americans' blindness to cultural and racial differences (they mistake indigenous Americans for Jews, for example) are cruelly and hilariously spot-on. The Princess' goal of Western freedom is corny but stirring. And Roy's patter – such as when he counsels a mean opponent that "a duel is a sacred thing, so don't cheapen it" – is priceless.

sequel: Shanghai Knights

MORE Jackie Chan: Jackie Chan's First Strike, Rumble in the Bronx, The Medallion, Around the World in 80 Days

© Adrian Martin August 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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