Posted: 06/14/2000


Shanghai Noon


by D. Patrick Seitz

This DVD is available for purchase at

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The provocative full-page photos of Hollywood’s most nubile starlets notwithstanding, my favorite section of Movieline magazine is the last page. Entitled “the x and y files,” it’s a delightful drawing-board of reproductive “what if?” that features photos of five celebrities, and pairs of the most visually apropos celebrity parents for each (e.g. Susan Anton and Peter Fonda siring Sarah Polley).

And what relevance does this have to Shanghai Noon? Plenty, truth be told, for as surely as Connie Stevens and Jeffrey Hunter have the looks to have begotten Jenny McCarthy, Shanghai Noon is the conceptual love-child of Wild Wild West and Rush Hour—and an improvement on both.

Wild Wild West, last summer’s big-money debacle that was long on hype and short on delivery, tried to no avail to deliver the frontier humor. Instead, it went insane on its own uber-budget, sacrificing plot for CGI graphics that bordered on masturbatory. Ravenous was funnier than Wild Wild West, and you know a comedy failed when it’s less amusing than a movie about military cannibalism.

Rush Hour, Jackie Chan’s 1998 buddy flick with Chris Tucker, arrived with less marketing fanfare, and was much better received by the public. With Chan to provide the physical comedy and Tucker to handle the verbal yuks, all the bases were covered. However, people can only take so much Chris Tucker before wanting to forcefully sedate him.

That’s where Shanghai Noon succeeds so thoroughly. It makes good use of the humor of an Old West milieu and gives Chan an American co-star who isn’t rotating at 45-RPM in a 33-RPM world.

The plot isn’t of any great importance. That’s not to say that it’s boring or flawed. Rather, the protagonists are so idiosyncratic and likable that we’d watch them go about their business regardless of their goals or problems. Still, here it is in a nutshell:

Princess Pei Pei (a rather progressive royal, played by Lucy Liu) leaves the Forbidden City under the cover of night with her American tutor rather than submit to a marriage of convenience. Unfortunately, she discovers upon arrival in America that she’s being ransomed off to the Emperor by an ex-countryman of hers who is now subjecting Chinese immigrants to slave-labor conditions on railroad crews.

The Emperor sends his three best guards, along with a translator, to deliver the requested ransom. He also sends along his most ineffectual guard, Chon Wang (Jackie Chan), to carry the luggage.

The translator, et al, arrive in America. Unfortunately, he gets capped pretty early on by an overzealous member of an outlaw gang during a bungled train heist. Wang is separated from his group and runs into the leader of the gang, Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson), who is more taken by the glamour of the outlaw life than by the actual work involved. When Wang happens upon O’Bannon, he’s buried up to his neck in the middle of the desert, courtesy of his disgruntled ex-comrades in arms. Wang holds O’Bannon responsible for the death of his uncle, and, leaving him a pair of chopsticks with which to dig, leaves him to his own devices.

Of course, we’ve all seen enough posters, ads, and trailers to know that O’Bannon doesn’t get his skull picked clean by vultures. The two men keep running into each other until necessity dictates that they work together. As one should well expect, hilarity ensues.

What makes Shanghai Noon a damn enjoyable film is that Chan and Wilson work together so well. Chan’s and Wilson’s characters are both very easy to like, and their affability is magnified by their naivete—one, of the ways of the western world, the other, of the fatal realities of the lifestyle he’s chosen.

With Chan delivering his own unique brand of fighting and stunts, and Wilson supplying most of the spoken humor, no laugh goes unsolicited. Chan delivers ass-whuppins with a myriad of items, including (but not limited to) North American flora, horseshoes, antlers, sheriffs’ badges, and his own hair. Wilson delivers the goods in a much less flashy manner that’s equally effective. His anachronistic portrayal of a self-effacing outlaw with modern sensibilities is an absolute riot to behold, made all the more funny for his easy, unpracticed delivery. Hopefully, with this film, Wilson will no longer be known to a majority of filmgoers as “that dude who got his clock cleaned by the chimney thingy” in The Haunting.

Shanghai Noon is a pleasure to watch. Not a fleeting pleasure, like Mission: Impossible 2, or a guilty pleasure, as I’m sure the upcoming babe-fest Coyote Ugly will prove to be. It’s a funny, enjoyable film that didn’t come onto the scene with any unreal expectations as to its box office results. It’s a summer movie, free of summer movie pretensions and pressures. It delivers the laughs and feel-good vibes without trying to reinvent the wheel.

D. Patrick Seitz recently put down roots in Los Angeles, where he’s trying his hand at acting, writing, and singing.

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