“Shanghai Knights” is a disappointment. This sequel to the highly enjoyable and stylish Shanghai Noon is a lazy and limp film, completely forgettable, that relies totally on the charm and physical grace of Jackie Chan to keep the whole thing from collapsing. He’s all by himself here and Jackie looks a little tired this time as if he still knows the moves, but not the feelings.
“Shanghai Knights” follows Chon Wang (Chan) as he reunites with his maverick and sly partner in crime Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson) after Chon learns that his estranged father has been murdered by a Chinese rebel. They track him down in London where, with the help of Chon’s sister, Chon and Roy discover a labyrinthine conspiracy to destroy the Royal Family by a sinister mastermind named Rathbone (Aidan Gillen) who has also stolen the Wang family’s Imperial Seal.
As in most of Chan’s fish-out-of-water action-comedies, Chan gets into deep trouble through cultural misunderstandings and Chan and Wilson soon get into a series of battles and chases with British Police and various villains, all the while bumping into such characters as Charlie Chaplin, Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes. There’s not much humor had with any of the pulp references in the film, aside from some one-liners, unless you think it’s funny that the Londoners in this film all have yellow teeth. Wouldn’t you want to talk to Charlie Chaplin? Is Sherlock Holmes on the case of Jack the Ripper?
The first thing people want to know about a Jackie Chan film is how good the fight scenes are and, to be sure, the fight scenes in “Shanghai Knights” are as elaborately choreographed as anything Chan’s ever done, but they add up to less than we’ve seen in his other films, especially the wonderful The Legend of Drunken Master. For one thing, I thought that Chan was upstaged in this film by Donnie Yen, another Hong Kong fighting legend of Iron Monkey fame, who steals every scene he’s in with his fluid movements. Chan’s stunts in “Shanghai Knights” look kind of forced and stiff to me especially the “Singing in the Rain” parody that has gotten a lot of publicity. The scene starts out like a basic fight sequence and then Chan stumbles upon a table full of umbrellas, which he uses to fight with. It’s cute, but the scene doesn’t end like “Singing in the Rain,” it’s not nearly as physically impressive as Gene Kelly and I’m not sure I’d even know it was a “Singing in the Rain” tribute unless I was told beforehand. Chan even gets upstaged in the climactic sword battle between his character and Rathbone.
The story of “Shanghai Knights” is kind of a mess. I heard that “Shanghai Knights” was originally going to be just about the two guys going after Jack the Ripper in old England, but here it looks like they’ve thrown everything into the mix hoping that it would work. There’s also a lot of rough spots in the film too like in a scene where Rathbone holds a big fireworks show for the purpose of killing the Royal Family. When Chon’s sister, Lin, shows up to save the day, the members of Rathbone’s fireworks crew turn into Ninjas who are summarily killed off in such an illogical way that you’re not sure who did what to whom. Did Chan himself direct these scenes? I don’t know, but I’d be willing to bet that he directed the “Singing in the Rain” parody and the other big action setups and maybe that’s why everything looks so haphazard. The fireworks keep going and the crowd cheers even as one of the thugs falls out of a clock tower. It’s almost as if the sound disconnected or something. There’s also a lot of lowbrow sexual humor that feels like it doesn’t belong in a Jackie Chan movie. Chan’s character shows such little sense of awe at being in England in the early stages of the twentieth century that I wonder why they didn’t call this film “Chon and Roy’s Excellent Adventure.”
Maybe “Shanghai Knights,” along with Rush Hour 2 and “The Tuxedo,” is proof that Jackie Chan has fallen victim to the superstar syndrome that has recently infected the careers of Martin Lawrence and Eddie Murphy and which usually occurs when a star feels like he can do no wrong. Look what happened to other action stars like Bronson, Norris and Seagal who kicked their way to the top in stupid films that ultimately destroyed their box office credibility. Maybe the same thing will happen to Jackie.
Another problem with “Shanghai Knights” is Owen Wilson’s Roy O’Bannon character and how little of interest he’s given to do in this film. It’s like he’s sidelined in the film, a spectator to the endless fight setups and set pieces. At the start of the film, we learn that O’Bannon has become the hero of a popular series of western-adventure books, but there’s nothing done with the character except for the odd wisecrack. Wilson can be a lot of fun to watch and he was terrific in Shanghai Noon, but here, like the rest of the film, he’s kind of invisible. I would also like to state for a fact that fight scenes in absence of all other drama aren’t interesting to watch. Call me jaded, but don’t call me when they make “Shanghai Sunrise.”