B+ Sound B+ Extras A-
starring Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Aidan Gillen, Fann Wong
screenplay by Alfred Gough & Miles Millar
directed by David Dobkin
by Walter Chaw Crossing the big pond hasn't exactly done wonders for the heroes of the halcyon days of Hong Kong cinema. Lured by the prestige and mythology of the Hollywood dream factory, folks like Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, John Woo, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, and so on have transformed the honesty of their craft into the same sort of boom crash opera we've been churning out on Yankee shores for decades now. Without a strong sense of how to film action, of the martial arts tradition in Chinese cinema, nor of the particular strengths of a particular artist, even as this genre has taken a dramatic upturn in popularity in the West, the folks most responsible for its sophistication have become sidekicks (Michelle Yeoh in Tomorrow Never Dies), B-list hunks (Yun Fat), villains (Li), failures (Lam, Hark), starfuckers (Woo), and, in the sad case of Jackie Chan, broad racial caricatures at the mercy of people like Brett Ratner, Kevin Donovan, and Tom Dey. Chan has made over one-hundred films over the course of forty years as an actor, director, writer, producer, and stuntman; the first thing that happens to him when he comes to the United States is that he's placed in the company of idiots and neophytes. It feels like racism.
In that spirit, David Dobkin's follow-up to Shanghai Noon, Shanghai Knights is actually considerably less racist than it is silly--an action film that plays a lot like a child's Troll Book selection that, nevertheless, features an ebullient sequence in a brothel that ends with our heroes naked in a roomful of whores. What humor it has seems to be an accident of Chan's slow-dying charm and Owen Wilson's timing. The screenplay is a spider's breakfast of buddy movie cast-offs and anachronistic "historical cameos" (Charlie Chaplin, Jack the Ripper, "Artie" Conan Doyle, etc.) that instantly test patience before their inevitable explanation, whereupon they become appallingly patronizing for anyone, presumably, with enough sense to avoid this picture.
For the uninitiated, Chon Wang (played by Chan and pronounced "John Wayne"--the film will also make sport of aliases "Benny Hana" and "Sherlock Holmes") is an Imperial Guard turned Carson City sheriff who learns that his father, the keeper of the Imperial Seal, has been killed back in the Forbidden City. His American friend is Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson), a laconic fast-talker who accompanies Wang to England on the trail of the evil British royal (Gary Oldman doppelganger Aidan Gillen) responsible for the murder. Wang's little sister, Lin (Asian television superstar Fann Wong), provides a little chop-socky and some minor titillation along the way.
The filthiness of the British and the awfulness of their food is a joke the same way a faucet that's been dripping for decades is a joke, and the minor return to Chan's Harold Lloyd-esque (antics on Big Ben pay tribute to Harold Lloyd's 1923 Safety Last) slapstick shtick is undermined by excrescent soundtrack choices. The music is all period--if the period is postwar rock 'n' roll. With umbrellas and ladders the main weapons of choice, Chan seems to be paying homage or ripping off Hark's and Li's Once Upon a Time in China series (the Wong Fey Hung character one that Chan has already played in Drunken Master II) while an underwater talking sequence is transplanted from Chan's own Supercop 4. Perhaps returning to what he knows best (and the action sequences feel as though they've been directed by Chan), the scenes can't help but feel pallid and lackluster--time is catching up with Chan, for sure, but the lack of originality and the invitation to compare against past glories is more fatal by far.
Shanghai Knights is only really offensive to memory, a generally inconsequential film that probably shouldn't have been made but the creation of which was seemingly inevitable. It isn't nearly so bad as Chan's The Tuxedo and, to be fair, it's not nearly so bad as the majority of Chan's Chinese films, which are indicated primarily by their misogyny and volume. But knowing what it's not worse than is the worst sort of praise. Often the best parts of Chan's films are the after-credit outtakes that detail the litany of Chan's injuries--anymore, they're comprised almost entirely of vaguely mean-spirited laughter at Chan's malapropisms and a staid running joke about cell phones. The decline of Chan's outtakes tell in microcosm the death of HK cinema: Gone is the danger and the delirium, in its place are cheap cultural/racial jokes and an over-reliance on technology. Shanghai Knights is only the latest in a chain of films that do their best to make us forget why we liked this stuff in the first place. Originally published: February 7, 2003.
by Bill Chambers Shanghai Knights has the best use of widescreen of any mainstream film in recent memory, making Buena Vista's decision to release it on DVD only in its original 2.35:1 aspect ratio a good one. Enhanced for 16x9 displays, the image is pleasing but inconsistent, marred by sometimes-heavy edge-enhancement that turns fine detail into an eyesore. Grain occasionally contributes incongruous grit, but on the plus side, colours, especially shades of red, are gob-smacking, while contrast extends rich and deep. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix starts out thunderous but soon, oddly, subdues, sparking to life again late in the game with the fireworks sequence; Randy Edelman's score consistently fills the soundstage (though the anachronistic pop selections almost always adhere to the front mains), yet that's about all that does so memorably.
The disc's "Bonus Material" is less disappointing than its tech creds. Opening with trailers for Bringing Down the House and The Recruit, the Shanghai Knights DVD also includes two of the finest discussions of Jackie Chan's choreography process--from the standpoint of editing and cinematography--to date: in addition to the 9-minute interview with Chan and director David Dobkin "Fight Manual", Dobkin's feature-length commentary, wherein we learn that a Chan fight scene is shot in order, piece-by-piece, necessitating a re-lighting of the set between every single camera set-up! But although Dobkin seems to have shown Jackie the most respect and deference of any of his American directors, the 28-minute batch of deleted scenes here indicates that Dobkin caved to the trend of Jackie's Hollywood production and de-emphasized the chop-socky in favour of verbal comedy--at least three of the eleven elisions can be considered longer brawls, and in its extended form, the library tête-à-tête, in particular, is far more electric.
Also contributing a yak-track are screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, whose presence is welcome, though an interview featurette might have served them better since they run out of gas by the halfway mark. It doesn't help, with respect to conversational intrigue, that they evidently had the ideal experience on the Shanghai movies, having written them without much in the way of studio interference and having had directors and actors, for better or worse, eager to honour their scripts for each film. A bizarre and useless sepia-toned compression of Shanghai Knights' action bits ("Action Overload" (2 mins.)) rounds out the DVD. Originally published: July 2, 2003.