There’s a story about a Chinese hero who travels to America’s old West on a mission. How much more high concept can you get than “East meets West”? Anyway, the hero encounters trouble almost immediately, forcing him to fall in with the local native Americans. Encountering rampant racism, he soon discovers the brutal treatment of Chinese immigrants at the hand of whites in the construction of the railroad lines. Only by teaming with a white, blonde gunslinger will our hero find justice in a massive, multi-party Kung Fu fight and save the day. Any of this sound familiar? It’s a Jet Li film directed by Sammo Hung from 1997 called “Once Upon A Time In China Part VI”. Strangely, it also describes the new Jackie Chan film, “Shanghai Noon”. Hmmmm…
To be fair, if you are going to do the whole “East meets West” thing, there are only so many plausible ways to go. The missions and characters are different. Li portrayed the legendary Wong Fei Hong, who came to America to set up a school. Chan is Chon Wang, an Imperial Guard viewed as something of a buffoon, who accompanies his uncle to rescue princess Pei-Pei (Lucy Liu) in America. When you’re star has limited command of English, it makes sense to have a wisecracking white sidekick to do the talking. Wang gets Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson). Wilson is fantastic in the role and appears to have more chemistry with Chan than Chris Tucker did in “Rush Hour”.
Hey, this is a Jackie Chan film, and what everyone really cares about are the fights. No studio head or insurance company in the U.S. would ever allow the star to perform the kind of stunts that have resulted in that plate in his head (the result of a botched stunt for “Armour of God”). To counteract the toned down action the other elements of the film, namely the plot, dialogue and supporting cast are usually beefed up. Screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar are up to that task, as are Wilson, Liu, and the rest of the actors.
It’s all about the fight scenes, though. In Hong Kong, if the director doesn’t have the expertise, another director will be brought in just to shoot the fights and the stunts. These scenes are as elaborate to film as they are to perform. Two of the best craftsmen in this arena are Woo-Ping Yuen (“Drunken Master”, “Fist of Legend”, fight choreographer for “The Matrix”) and TV’s Sammo Hung (“Eastern Condors”, “Mr. Nice Guy”). Unfortunately for this film, director Tom Dey is making his feature debut after a series of commercials and a stint at the American Film Institute. One battle between Chan and a group of Crow Indians is spectacular, but a large bar fight and the final fight kind of drag. The studio could have achieved better results if they had brought in their own ringer to direct these scenes, but ego and the Director’s Guild would probably not allow it.
It’s too bad. Dey ultimately lets Chan down. If the legendary actor could have brought in old school chum Sammo Hung, he could have made this a great picture. Besides, it’s not like Sammo doesn’t have the American work experience. He used an American crew when he had to shoot in Texas for “Once Upon A Time In China Part VI”.