Hold on to your top hat and pipe; Chan and Wilson are back to deconstruct Victorian England in fine style.
Waaa-taaaaaaaahhhh! If you had your Jackie Chan radar turned off during 2000, you might have missed Shanghai Noon, an unlikely but highly successful movie premise which saw Chan's Chinese Imperial Guard teaming up with Owen Wilson's laid-back cowboy slacker to recover gold stolen from China and smuggled to the Old West. The plot was of course as irrelevant as it was plausible, but the ensuing teaming of two fine talents resulted in a hugely enjoyable kung-fu western romp and the inevitable assumption of a sequel.
As was the case with Chan's other massively successful U.S. outing Rush Hour, a sequel was something we were actually glad to see, and just like that movie, here Shanghai Knights proves to be every bit as entertaining as it's prequel. Chan and Wilson return as Chon Wang (or John Wayne as he's known to everybody on the west-side) and Roy O'Bannon respectively, this time uniting to track the murderer of Wang's father who has fled to England from China. Followed by Wang's sister Chon Lin (the stunning Fann Wong) who witnessed her father's demise, the killer proves to be none other than Lord Nelson Rathbone (Aidan Gillen, star of British T.V. series Queer as Folk), tenth in line to the throne and something of a closet maniac.
Having stolen the Royal Seal traditionally guarded by the Chon family, Rathbone plans to use the trinket to unite the enemies of the Dynasty, led by Wu Chow (Donnie Yen), and rule China. Or something. Whilst he's at it, Rathbone plans to kill every member of his family between himself and the throne, including his beloved Aunt, Queen Victoria, leaving him free to rule the entire British Empire in one fell swoop. Suffice to say the diminished Chon family have something to say about this, and so Wang travels with Roy from America to London to meet his sister and give Rathbone a right good pasting.
Along the way, the pair encounter and inspire a number of famous characters from the Victorian era, including Arthur Conan Doyle (Tom Fisher), Jack the Ripper (dispatched over a bridge by a kung-fu kick from Chon Lin about five seconds after appearing on screen), the aforementioned Queen Victoria, and a young street urchin who aids them in their quest and later transpires to be a certain Mr. Charlie Chaplin (Aaron Johnson; all "guv'nor" and "sire" talk, but mercifully never too mockney-annoying). There's also an amusing sub-plot about O'Bannon falling for Chon Lin (oh, how original), much to Wang's annoyance, that leads to the pair falling out before reuniting, somewhat bizarrely, thanks to a pillow fight.
The problem with all action movies is that the periods between action tend to be both long and overly-tedious. Shanghai Knights succeeds even more than it's prequel in eliminating this assumption by a) piling on the chop-sockey high-jinks, and b) playing superbly well off the Chan/Wilson chemistry. Never a minute goes by without a good giggle, and I registered a good ten or so genuine belly-laughs, which if you consider the fact that about one third of the film represents solid action, leaves an average of about one loud guffaw every seven-and-a-half minutes. Now that's not bad.
The centrepiece of any Chan movie, however, is always going to be the fisticuffs, and Shanghai Knights represents some of, if not the finest prop-based stunt work since Jackie's move West. The wrinkles may be growing deeper on his fizzog, but Chan's physique is still a thing of wonder, and he continues to defy age and gravity by leaping about like a hyperactive cat with a firework up it's arse. Everything from market stalls to street canopies, umbrellas to bowler hats and the odd vase or two inbetween become weapons of mass amusement in the hands of the Master of Smash, and some of his manoeuvres here come close to paralleling the likes of Police Story; not bad considering he's pushing 50. As well as a lovely scene in the marketplace where Chan mimics Singing in the Rain (albeit in a more acrobatic and rumble-based fashion), he even manages to lampoon one of his hero Chaplin's finest moments by dangling with Wilson from the hands of Big Ben. Inspired stuff.
It's hardly ruining your viewing pleasure to say that Rathbone eventually gets his comeuppance, and that Roy and Chon Lin finally receive Wang's blessing, although he tries pretty well to keep them apart. That the plotting is so wafer-thin is of little concern; a reasonably strong script is boosted by the usual Wilson ad-libbing and the affable charm of Chan, propelling the movie along with as much good humour as hard knocks. Wilson continues to excel himself in likeable comedy roles, but we're getting a bit concerned that he's becoming a tad typecast. Behind Enemy Lines might not have established him as a full-on leading man like the studio had hoped, but I do wish they'd give him another chance. In the meantime, if he and Jackie (or indeed he and Eddie Murphy as in I Spy) want to continue sowing the seeds of such hugely enjoying nonsense then so be it; I for one will keep buying the tickets.
Director David Dobkin, who really hasn't done much else before this save a couple of elusive low-key numbers, will no doubt be propelled onto greater things as a result of the movie's success. This might not be entirely justified, as really all he has to do here is keep the camera pointed at the lads and let them do their stuff, but he certainly could have done a lot worse, and there's ample evidence here that he may have a natural eye for action.
Many American comedies have tried to poke fun at English culture (see the likes of King Ralph, shudder), but few have ripped apart a nation's heritage as beautifully and affectionately as Shanghai Knights. I won't spoil it for you by divulging any of the action, but I do challenge you to not want a pillow fight by the time you get home.
Disko has seen fit to award Shanghai Knights 4 out of 5 Hoto Shotos.
Owen Wilson (Roy O'Bannon)
Aidan Gillen (Lord Nelson Rathbone)
Fann Wong (Chon Linn)
Donnie Yen (Wu Chow)