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East Meets Old West in Chan's 'Shanghai Noon'

by Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 26, 2000; Page C05

No need to request of Jackie Chan, in his first western, that he smile when he says something: Chan is always smiling. It's his trademark, that friendly, almost poignantly open face, so attractive and compellingly decent that it seems not to go with the whirling acrobatics of his world-class kung fu moves.

The Chan charm is put to good use in the slight but amusing "Shanghai Noon," which ambles through a not-terribly-well-thought-out plot that's more like a series of Mad magazine parodies of great moments from the western.

Its primary joke is as follows: Chan, in some kind of weird Chinese outfit (by cowboy standards), attracts derision and contempt from the macho cowhands or Crow warriors who encounter him. They assume because he is dressed so strangely that he's a wuss. They assault him, and he kicks butt royally. It's a primitive recipe but always effective.

What is the weakest form of humor? The pun, so naturally the movie uses puns badly twice. The first is in its title--"Shanghai Noon," which alludes to "High Noon" in a way that suggests nobody affiliated with this picture has ever seen that picture. Then there's Chan's character's name, which is Chon Wang, pronounced "John Wayne," to which his on-again-off-again buddy Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson) says, "That's no name for a cowboy."

And that's pretty much the level of humor throughout. The comic relationship between the two is based on Chon's ignorance of the West, which demands the mentorship of Roy, who's really a kind of con man eager to take advantage of the little Asian but also coming gradually to admire his luck and pluck.

The plot is a wisp. The daughter of a Chinese lord is abducted from the Forbidden City (the Disney company actually obtained access to that site for this meek little movie; oh, the power of the Mouse!) and taken to America for ransom by an evil Chinese aristocrat (Roger Yuan). Three Imperial Guards are sent to pay the ransom, and Chon Wang, who loves the princess (played by Lucy Liu of "Ally McBeal"), goes along as luggage bearer. But during a train robbery, he is separated from the official party, links up with Roy and goes his own way.

For a time, the movie plays like a picaresque saga of the Old West, similar in its way to "Little Big Man" or "How the West Was Won" or even the darker masterpiece "The Searchers." Chon is attacked by Indians (who appear to have their own martial arts training) and then adopted by Indians and acquires a lovely Indian bride (rodeo champ Brandon Merrill, with whom the movie could have done a lot more). This sequence is actually the movie's best, and it comes too early. But it plays neatly with the nobility of the Plains tribes, revealing them to be not poetry-speaking profiles against the horizon but regular down-and-dirty guys who call Chan "He Who Fights in a Dress."

Teaming reluctantly with O'Bannon, Chan moves through a town phase that plays some games with the evil lawman theme of "Unforgiven," pitting good-natured O'Bannon against an evil lawman named Van Cleef (a homage to Lee Van Cleef, an American B-movie actor who had a run of stardom in the mid-'60s Italian westerns). Finally it moves on to a railroad construction setting, similar to "Once Upon a Time in the West." It covers the territory, you might say.

The best martial arts sequence is the climax, which pits Chan against Yuan in a dusty mission steeple, and it's a zinger. On his worst day, Chan is still an extraordinary fighter with unbelievable speed and dexterity, and the glum memory of poor T. Cruise assaying martial arts expertise in "M:I-2" only highlights how good this guy is.

Wilson, something of a Robert Redford look-alike, is occasionally funny, but his modern-guy shtick grows thin much sooner than young director Tom Dey realizes. The film does have one great pleasure too long missing from the screen: the spectacular landscape of the West in the magnificent background, with men on horses with guns and hats thundering across the foreground. I could look at that all day.

Los Angeles Times

John Huang?  East collides with west in Jackie Chan's 'Shanghai Noon'


     East meets wild west in Jackie Chan's Hollywood latest.
     Chan, who's as cute as a toddler in a bathtub, teams up with Owen Wilson, a Seinfeld rambler with a quick tongue and golden smile. The pairing works like a charm. In fact, the film nearly blew the top off the theater, save for a few quirks and the standard fight scene ending.
     Lucy Liu (Princess Pei Pei) is kidnapped and held for ransom in Carson City, Nevada. Chan and three other imperial guards are sent from China to rescue her.
     However, Owen Wilson's gang of bandits rob their train, derailing the original plan.
     But, after the midpoint, the production becomes more of a sequence of wonderfully original and funny scenes than a coherent piece.
     It's too bad, because had the filmmakers been able to keep both those barrels focused, the shot would have been a double bull's eye. Still, in a season not graced by many good films, that one-barrel packs a powerful bullet. I had a great time!
     I'd first seen Owen Wilson in a little film called "Bottle Rocket" a couple years back. He was as outstanding then as he is now. I'm confident "Shanghai Noon" will give him the recognition he deserves,
     "I don't know karate, but I know Ka..razy and I will use it." Of course, Jackie continues to be lovable - how could you not like this guy?
     The cinematography and music are solid. Even the script is wonderful - save for the climax. Not that it was bad, it's just that a marvelous cast of characters had been created and built up well; the climax failed to utilize this huge potential.
     Aside, from Wilson's uncommonly rich standoff with the sheriff, the rest of the climax plays out as you'd expect (in contrast to the freshness of the rest of the film). And then to top it off the resolution goes way silly.
     Best to have ended the film on a freeze frame - depicted in the picture above.
     Despite falling short of what it could have been, "Shanghai Noon" still kicks butt. I recommend it heartily.

San Jose State University:

West Is East

Jackie Chan kicks a hole in the old West in sweet 'Shanghai Noon'

By Richard von Busack

IN THE SEASON of overproduced, gross, foot-in-the-groin type films, the cleverly titled Shanghai Noon has sweetness and grace to it. Tom Dey's direction is low-key and funny. And Owen Wilson (Bottle Rocket and the hopeless Minus Man) is the best partner Jackie Chan's had since he came to America. Shanghai Noon goes on too long, but all is forgiven because of the efforts of the two stars. The film isn't about how cool, but how essentially gentle and eager to please they are. Today's buddy comedies always seem to be a contest between two actors to see who can bellow the loudest. Chan's self-mockery is well known, though, and the self-effacing Wilson never seriously loses his temper.

Wilson plays Roy O'Bannon, the most courtly of gentleman train robbers, unable to maintain resentment even at his henchmen who buried him up to his neck in the desert--Roy chalks the unpleasant incident up to frontier humor. The plot line is a version of the frog-prince fairy tale, with Chan as the frog. Chan plays Chon Wang, a member of the emperor of China's Imperial Guard who joins a trio of agents trying to ransom the emperor's daughter (Lucy Liu), who was taken across the ocean to Nevada as a slave. The emperor's chief of staff decides to let the inept soldier Chon go on the search to America. After the polite bandit O'Bannon robs the train on which Chon is riding, the two team up.

Chan doesn't move like he used to, but he can still kickbox, and Shanghai Noon features some exhilarating matches. In one scene, Chon skirmishes with a troop of Crow warriors; and the final battle between Chan and the towering villain (Roger Yuan), which takes place in a half-constructed church bell tower, is as astonishing a sequence as anything Chan's ever done. Shanghai Noon has PG-rated language and even a pot joke. But the one really dubious moment finds Chon waking up married to an Indian chief's daughter, played by Brandon Merrill. No doubt the film took this material straight from the awful comic-relief scenes in The Searchers, since one of the running gags is that Chon Wang's name is misheard as "John Wayne."

The other sources are as easily read: Jet Li and Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China and America, Keaton's The General and Sergio Leone. Yet Shanghai Noon displays a core underneath the candy. Late in the movie, Roy says something petty to please a girl at a bordello. She's wondering why he's riding with a Chinaman, and Roy denies his friendship. Chon, unseen, hears through the window. While we realize this is only a screenwriter's device to get the heroes separated for a time, the insult gives texture to the buddying. It reveals the deep fear by Asians, and by all people of color, that under the right circumstances their white friends might betray them. And the real anger Chon shows when Roy jokes about the Chinese man's queue is also a remembrance of how the Chinese were mistreated in America.

In between the gorgeous Sierra scenery and Chan's combination of physical magic and comic modesty, the East-meeting-West undercurrents give Shanghai Noon backbone. Chan is what movies once were, and I guess Tom Green is what movies are, but the happy note is that Chan, though aged, is still alive and kicking

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