Posted: 02/13/2003


Shanghai Knights


by D. Patrick Seitz

This DVD is available for purchase at

Film Monthly Home
Wayne Case
Steve Anderson
The Rant
Short Takes (Archived)
Small Screen Monthly
Behind the Scenes
New on DVD
The Indies
Film Noir
Coming Soon
Now Playing
Books on Film
What's Hot at the Movies This Week
Interviews TV

I don’t want to think that I’m getting old and curmudgeony, but Shanghai Knights leaves me wondering: is it a fun movie? Sure. But I couldn’t shake the feeling during the screening that The Powers That Be think that I like these two fish-out-of-water goofballs a lot more than I actually do. They’re like the friends you have who take certain liberties with you, assuming a level of closeness you wouldn’t necessarily have assigned your association.

Also, as much as I enjoy Owen Wilson’s characterizations, with their trademark musings on all things profound and mundane, I’m to the point where I’ll scream if I have to endure any more of his characters’ navel-gazing. He’s turning into an irritating philosophy major. “Gee…I mean, really, guys,” he says, squinting in such a way as to evoke that goofy grin and looking into that far-off spot just above the horizon, Claire Danes-style, “did you ever wonder why? Wow…deli-style pastrami. Who thought this stuff up?”

It’s the Wilson we know, and used to love. Let’s look back over his greatest hits compilation…

Meet the Parents: “She’s a wonderful girl, man. Gee…I mean, really…she’s a tomcat in bed…wow…”

Behind Enemy Lines: “That sniper who looks like Gilligan wants to kill me. Gee…what’s up with that?”

Bottle Rocket: “Pulling off a heist? Wow…I mean, did you ever think about it, really think about it? I mean, really…”

Armageddon: “A nuclear bomb…in an asteroid. I mean, wow. It’s a crazy thing…”

I just have this bad feeling that they’ll keep cranking out sequels to Shanghai Noon until we actively hate these characters, dropping them into a new zany location with each successive film until the whole franchise smells like a bad East-meets-West Survivor spin-off.

Here’s the plot (or as much of one as the audience is treated to): the evil Lord Rathbone (Aiden Gillen) offs Wang’s (Chan) father and makes off with the Imperial Seal of China. In return for this service by which he thinks he can attain the throne, the equally evil Donnie Yen has agreed to deep-six the six people standing between Rathbone and the throne of England—including Queen Victoria, whose royal bootie currently keeps it warm. Obviously, our displaced duo teams up again to avenge the murder, solve the theft, and get themselves involved in all sorts of hilarious hi-jinks.

Can you feel the sarcasm? Good. Let’s move on.

Luckily enough for Wilsons’s horn-dog character Roy O’Bannon, Wang’s hot sister, Lin (Fann Wong), is also trying to avenge her father’s death. Do you think O’Bannon wants to get in her pants? You betcha! Once they cross the pond, O’Bannon and Wang meet up with a fumbling police inspector who wants to be a writer: Arthur Conan Doyle. Heard of him? They keep having run-ins with a pickpocket urchin who smudges dirt on his upper lip just moments before we learn that his name is (wait for it) Charlie Chaplin. And Lin inadvertently cleans up the streets of London when she dispatches Jack the Ripper to the bottom of the Thames with nary a thought when he tries to attack her one dark, foggy night. You can almost hear the screenwriter and director mumbling in the corner, clutching to each other and loping around, gollum-like.

“Look, look…we’re being clever. Clever, I say. And you love it—love it, you bastards!”

Do you even need to ask if the bad guys get what’s coming to them? This ain’t Hemingway. Nobody’s going to die alone in the rain at the end of all this, at least nobody for whom we’ve cared even half a whit. Chan’s stunts (including an umbrella fight peppered with reminiscent bits of Gene Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain choreography) are all clever and appealing, but at an hour and 47 minutes, a little more plot would have been welcome, too.

My own personal guess for the third installment is a film in which Lin, Wang, and O’Bannon travel to China, thus reversing the dynamic of the first film and letting Wilson’s fumbling gaijin be the character utterly out of his element to the more comfortable Wong and Chan.

D. Patrick Seitz waits out the hottest hours of the day in a shady crack between two large rocks, like all good creatures of the Riverside/San Bernardino desert.

Got a problem? E-mail us at