Giddy Up, Dong Ma? : 'Shanghai Noon' Review
It’s rare these days to go into any movie blind. You can try your best to avoid trailers and commentary, but in the digital age of mass-communication, you’re bound to be blindsided by some information about a film, be it mere opinion or straight-up spoilers. So I took the opportunity to indulge in that blissful ignorance with this week’s offering, Shanghai Noon, armed only with my previous impressions of the lead actors, Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. Whether that would prove to be a horrible disappointment or a means to discover an unexpected gem was just the kind of gamble I was in the mood for.
Set in 19th Century China, we open in the Forbidden City to find that Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) is not growing up to be the monarch her father intends. Rather than be married off for political gain, she runs away with her English teacher, Calvin Andrews (Jason Connery), to strike out on her own in America. Chon Wang (Chan), a member of the Imperial Guard, fails to stop her and determines that he must join the rescue party sent to return the princess. On their way through Nevada, the train which the guardsmen choose to ride is hijacked by local bandits headed by the “charming” Roy O’Bannon (Wilson). One of his new men goes off half-cocked and murder’s Wang’s uncle, putting the party at odds. The young guardsman makes a narrow escape as the wild bandit turns on O’Bannon, and circumstances quickly conspire to bring cowboy and kung fu master together to return the princess and maybe make a little cash, too.
It’s a very stilted “East meets West” scenario (a fact which the movie lets us know SEVERAL times in painful bluntness), but somehow still manages to rise above its schlocky nature. Perhaps it’s helped by the involvement of a local Sioux tribe, and the fact that “the White Man” is rarely, if ever, shown to be on the right. Wang is the leading player in the film, despite its ensemble nature, and though he may be innocent and bumbling, he’s shown to be a competent fighter and a bright man. He’s not accustomed to anyways besides his own, but you can see him trying to adapt and making the best of some awful situations. Wang regularly puts O’Bannon in his place, managing to stay just one step behind the princess and her kidnappers, even through his social inadequacies. At the same time, the native tribesmen are shown in a similarly positive light – yes, there’s peace pipe and arranged wedding jokes, but the chief and his family are used in such a way that they poke fun at the status quo and Wang’s fish-out-of-water situation in an unconventional way.
That’s not to say that Wilson and company can’t hold their own, however. As the playboy bandit, he gets to play up his boastful bravado while also indulging in some quieter self-deprecating humor. An early shootout with Marshall Van Cleef (Xander Berkeley) has him talking up his quick-draw mastery, with an internal dialogue overlaid to suggest his hidden reservations. When unexpectedly saved by Wang’s dazzling martial arts, he’s just as fast to run his mouth in protest of a fair fight unduly interrupted. My only complaint is that Wilson rarely feels like he’s inhabiting the role himself – many of his early scenes feel like he’s simply trying to make his best Nicolas Cage impression, and while there’s charm to that, it had me missing the vibrancy shown in Owen’s later films. Still, he plays amazingly well off Chan, and that’s all that matters.
Shanghai Noon also does an excellent job of walking the line between comedy and action. Again, it’s not the best fight choreography you’ll see in your life, but it’s serviceable in all the best ways by mixing hand-to-hand trickery from Chan and thrilling shootouts from the rest of the cast while layering in a more playful aspect to it all. There're one-liners and visual gags abounding, with most landing to sound effect (aside from some ultimately throw-away scenes involving the rest of the Imperial Guard and a townsman who’s sure they’re Jews). A few of them even come in the form of amusing character reveals, including a clever pun at the expense of Jackie Chan’s character that you’ll be kicking yourself for not seeing from the get-go (try saying his name a few times and see what Western hero comes to mind). This even comes with an extra payoff later in the film, which may be a groaner for some, but had me chuckling on its resolution.
So how did the little experiment turn out? Quite well, I’d say. Shanghai Noon might not be a Blazing Saddles but if you’re not going in expecting the best of the best, it’s definitely a fun little ride. It’s got that early-aughts style that burned out quick, but still, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the peppy writing, funny characters, and creative action. Not a movie I’d kill to find, but it’s certainly worth your time, should you ever stumble across it.