People persist in calling Jackie Chan a bad actor, but I have to disagree. True, the transplanted, mealy-mouthed Hong Kong star doesn't hurdle the language barrier as deftly as a physical one. But even excepting the man's extraordinary, graceful physical prowess, Chan is an expressive actor with the full commitment to carry off the silly comedy and even the brooding, wounded drama between his brilliant, self-choreographed action ballets. Chan's previous effort, The Tuxedo, was depressingly drained of Chan's trademark daring and creativity, relying on wire-work, doubles, and even CGI instead of Chan's natural razzle-dazzle (even Chan now dismisses the DreamWorks project as a misguided attempt to ingratiate himself to Steven Spielberg). Chan's latest, Shanghai Knights, may be a shamelessly simple-minded sequel (to 2000's Shanghai Noon), but it also gleefully embraces the Chan aesthetic.
Chan's career in America, of course, involves pairing him with motormouth comic actors, a sensible compliment to Chan's silent-movie physicality. In the Rush Hour films, a bemused Chan tries to stay out of Chris Tucker's way. In Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights, Chan banters with Owen Wilson's infuriating man-child. Chan's eye-rolling takes and slow burns to Wilson effectively milk the comedy cow.
Taking place in 1887, the film leaps in short order from China's Forbidden City to Carson City, Nevada, then New York and London. Chan plays sheriff Chon Wang (a delirous homonym for "John Wayne"), and Wilson plays Roy O'Bannon, a likeably dim playboy/knight errant trading on his unearned reputation as a hero. In hugely popular pulp novels, Roy is celebrated as the capable hero and Chon as the "sidekick" Shanghai Kid. In reality, the roles are reversed, with Chon--now out to avenge his father's murder--dragging Roy to England to nab the culprits. Also hot on the killer's trail: Chon's kick-ass sister Lin (the fetching Fann Wong). The East-West heroes face East-West villains: the deadly Wu Yip (Donnie Yen) and the strident, long-caped Lord Rathbone (Aidan Gillen).
Names like Lord Rathbone (a nod to classic villain--and Sherlock Holmes--Basil Rathbone) tip off the audience to the movie's glorified-fanboy authors. Screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar are known for penning not only Chon and Roy, but TV's Superboy mythology on Smallville and a draft of the next Spider-Man movie. The duo indulges in anachronistic humor and parody, playing persistently fast and loose with the historical characters (a preposterous young Charlie Chaplin shows up two years before his birth, for example). Gough and Millar's script may be a tad bloated, never having met a sidetrack it didn't like and hardly standing up to scrutiny, but by allowing for more Chantastic action, all is forgiven.
Gough and Millar's colorful, overplayed sham provides the bed on which Chan and Wilson can jump. Wilson's frequently improvised, laconic, modern witticisms connect with admirable regularity. Chan, of course, is the real show, and he doesn't disappoint here. Beginning with a revolving door, Keystone Kops playlet that would have Houdini bowing in respect, Chan's lightning-quick action choreography both awes and charms. A streets-of-London melee includes a joyful "Singin' in the Rain" dance break that overtly marks Chan's fancy footwork as the playful inheritance of Gene Kelly. Chan has often cited Kelly and the silent physical comics as inspiration, and the routines here bolster the case to put Chan alongside them in the cinema history books. A Wilson-ism caps off each scene (like the absurd suggestion, "Stop wasting time!").
Director David Dobkin encourages most of the supporting and bit players to mug relentlessly (like Tom Fisher's Inspector Doyle), but the villains play it cooler. Gillen, looking like a young, smug Alec Baldwin, sneers effectively and the earnest Yen properly gets a kung fu showdown with Chan. Dobkin's worst sin is not knowing when to quit with his modern musical juxtapositions. Roger Miller's "England Swings," early on, evokes a smile, but the hits keep coming, overeagerly, and by the time a shrill car escape is paired with a remix of the Who's "Magic Bus," you'll beg for mercy.
Still, this innocent, sixties-style, big-budget comedy-romance-action-adventure romp is solid family entertainment that would make any self-respecting kid's jaw drop for a good two hours. The young at heart will get their money's worth.
Disney delivers another satisfying Blu-ray two-fer with its single-disc release of Shanghai Noon and Shanghai Knights. Picture quality shows a marked improvement over the previously issued standard-def DVDs, and this release retains all previous bonus features, so hi-def fanatics have a solid impetus to upgrade (casual home-video watchers who already own these titles have less of a motivation). Given the picture's replay value and the nice-pricing, first-time adopters should definitely take the plunge.
The HD presentation of Shanghai Knights isn't on par with a new-release digital transfer, but it quite serviceably gets the job (of yielding greater detail and truer color than standard-def DVD) done. The transfer doesn't really excel in any particular area, but still qualifies as a noticeable upgrade over the previous DVD release in strong black level, solid detail, and not-unnatural color. Audio gets "the budget treatment" with a lossy Dolby Digital 5.1 mix that's going to disappoint HD audio nuts; still, to everyday ears—and graced with a high bit rate—it's still a clear (in dialogue) and reasonably robust (in action and music) rendering of the original soundtrack.
Bonus features in the Shanghai Knights area of the disc include two audio commentaries: one with director David Dobkin and the other with screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. Neither one is probably worth the time for anyone but the most die-hard of fans, but it's nice to see them included for completists. The latter is more personable, but not much more informative than Dobkin's spotty and disengaged track.
Eleven "Deleted Scenes" (SD) come without benefit of a “Play All” function.
"Fight Manual" (9:03, SD) finds Jackie Chan and Dobkin instructing viewers in the choreography, photography, and editing of fight scenes, while "Action Overload" (1:34, SD) is simply a musical montage of the movie's action.
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