I was so afraid.
I sat cowering in front of the screen, dreading what would come. After all, I have watched Jackie Chan on screen for more than 20 years, and I have regarded with dismay his Hollywood assimilation process, from the poor marketing of his better rereleases to – opening weekend records aside – his second-fiddle position in “Rush Hour.”
“Shanghai Noon” looked as thought it might be another chop-suey salad toss: a freshman director fresh from L’Oreal commercials; a relatively unknown co-star, Lucy Liu, as the plug-in Chinese female; and more East-West clichs than a fortune cookie factory working overtime.
And yet “Shanghai Noon” manages to stir this into a repast audiences won’t be able to keep themselves from eating up. As the name alone promises, it shamelessly milks its Far East-meets-Wild West motif with an aw-shucks grin. Everything that isn’t tied down gets lassoed up and thrown in, from whooping Indian attacks and buxom bordello workers to a black-hatted marshal by the name of Van Cleef.
“Shanghai Noon” also reinforces Jackie Chan’s hold on the title of cinema’s greatest living special effect. Chan at 46 exudes vitality and an impossible-to-believe twisting grace that comes from years of training based on centuries of tradition. The only time he shows his age is during a rope-and-horseshoe sequence in which he borrows from a traditional Chinese rope dart form. Only Chan aficionados and martial artists might note that his movements here feel more deliberate but that just means he’s slowed down to human speed.
The carp-out-of-water formula parallels Chan’s first purely American effort, “Rush Hour.” He starts out in Shanghai and goes to America to rescue young princess Pei Pei (Liu) from kidnappers. He teams up with streetwise (or in this case, prairie-wise) Owen Wilson, a congenial outlaw whose heart of gold is matched only by his lust for it.
The differences, though, are the hallmarks of a Jackie Chan movie. Instead of posing as a hero, Chan returns to his humble onscreen origins. He’s the derided Chon Wong, one of a hundred Imperial guards and definitely not one of the best. Meanwhile, his partnership with Wilson isn’t dragged down by mean-spirited one-upmanship, but a mutually goofy, stumbling progress. And even as the end spirals into schmaltziness (another Chan hallmark), by then everyone is ready to party in the corn-fest.
Wilson, as the amiably avaricious Roy O’Bannon, turns out to be a relief in other words, a delight. His independent film roots (“Minus Man” and “Bottle Rocket,” co-starring brother Luke Wilson) are evident in his wry, unaffected presence, and his quirkiness invests silly lines and visual gags with more hilarity than they sometimes deserve. This definitely should be Wilson’s launching pad for bigger projects.
As for the others, the freckled Liu in her few onscreen moments gets smacked around so often you actually feel sorry for her, although we all know it’s big-screen retribution for being a small-screen virago. Not to worry: Liu gets to show off a little footwork, maybe portending good things for her upcoming “Charlie’s Angels.” Meanwhile, rodeo champion Brandon Merrill holds up the feminist and Native American cause as a crack shot Indian woman. Roger Yuan plays the former Imperial guard-turned-railroad overlord and entrepreneurial kidnapper, whose trick with an oyster shell might diminish one’s appetite for the raw bivalves for a while.
Despite my earlier crack about L’Oreal commercials, first-time director Tom Dey does acquit himself well. Dey, who studied film at the Centre des Etudes Critiques in Paris and later at the American Film Institute, has an eye for cinematic vistas. Besides an impressive and all-too-brief opening sequence with the Imperial guards’ practice, he makes the “Nevada” landscape (otherwise known behind the scenes as Calgary) as much of a centerpiece as the action.
By the way, while “Shanghai Noon” would be the last place you’d expect to find commentary on cultural assimilation, Chan ends up making some intriguing albeit dramatically silly pronouncements about a human being’s potential in the East and the West. It actually gives you something to think about at least until the outtakes.