On the twelve year anniversary of the release of Shanghai Knights…
“How do you do it, Jackie?” That’s just about the only reasonable response one can have to “Shanghai Knights”. Re-teaming Jackie with Owen Wilson three years after their initial pairing in “Shanghai Noon”, we’re treated not only to a sequel that surpasses its predecessor, but what is undoubtedly Jackie Chan’s best American film to date.
Returning to their roles of the gun-slinging, kung fu fighting duo of opposites are Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson in the roles of Chon Wang (aka “John Wayne”) and Roy O’Bannon. As if it wasn’t enough for their chemistry to simply be as strong as in the first film, our two heroes are even more likeable, charismatic, and downright hysterical in their second pairing. They’re joined in their latest adventure by Chon’s younger sister, Chon Lin, played by Fann Wong, who proves to be both a wedge in Chon and Roy’s friendship and a bridge that brings them closer together – whenever she isn’t kicking people in the face, that is. Aiden Gillan serves the primary villainous role as the duplicitous Lord Rathbone, but largely allows his cohort Wu Chow, played by Donnie Yen, to serve as the muscle of their operation. Chon and Roy also find allies in the form of a pickpocketing orphan played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and a police inspector named Artie, played by Tom Fisher, and to give any further details on the identity of either one would be to drop some unforgiveable spoilers for those who haven’t seen the film.
1887, Chon Wang, a former Imperial Guard of China’s Forbidden City, now enforces the law in America by serving as the Sheriff of Carson City, Nevada. Unfortunately, he finds himself called upon to defend the honor of his family after his father is murdered and China’s Imperial Seal is stolen. Chon enlists the help of his good, if not entirely trustworthy, friend Roy O’Bannon, and the two trace the seal to London. Once they arrive, they quickly discover that Chon’s sister Lin is already there, having seen Lord Rathbone of the British Royal Family kill their father and make off with the seal firsthand. Eventually, the group realizes that Rathbone is in cahoots with Wu Chow, the illegitimate son of China’s Emperor, in a plot for both men to seize their respective national throne, but Chon discovers a much bigger problem – it seems that Roy has fallen for his younger sister.
Everything that was great about “Shanghai Noon” is turned up to eleven in the sequel – more martial arts action, more comedy, more one-liners mixed with ineptitude by Roy O’Bannon, more blatant historical anachronisms, and a soundtrack that’s a nearly a century removed from the time period of the film.
Moving the series from the Wild West to Victorian England was a stroke of genius on the part of writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, and it keeps the sequel feeling as fresh and new as the original. It also opens it up for a deluge of historical references and Easter Eggs that would get you flunked right out of history class if you took them seriously, but work within the context of the film precisely because they’re so off-the-wall and endearingly ridiculous. One such example is Roy’s falling on hard times after the events of the previous film. He’s invested all of his (read: Chon’s) money in the invention of Zeppellins, an idea that Chon scoffs at and which Roy replies with, “You’re lucky I didn’t invest in that ridiculous ‘Auto-Mobile’ idea!”
Alternate history is always an engaging concept for a period piece, but few movies have ever played with it as gleefully as “Shanghai Knights” does. This is a movie where the Boxer Rebellion shows up as henchman of the very foreigners they fought against, and where Lin kicks the stuffing out of Jack the Ripper (yes, THAT Jack the Ripper), and because the film so lovingly embraces its own silliness, the viewer never feels patronized or bored.
The absence of Lucy Liu and Brandon Merrill from the first film isn’t handled as well as it could have been – Chon explains that Pei Pei is “married to her work in San Francisco” in an offhanded comment, and Merrill’s Native American character is simply brushed under the rug altogether, but Fann Wong fills the void the two of them leave behind marvelously. For her portrayal of Lin, Wong came into the film with no formal martial arts experience, but that’ll surely come as news to anyone who sees her punting her enemies in the face like she’s been doing it her whole life. In fact, you’d probably feel better off fighting Chon than his sister. Martial arts rookie or not, Fann Wong is easily Jackie’s best female sidekick since Michelle Yeoh in “Supercop”.
Some of the biggest personal influences Jackie has cited include silent comedies and Gene Kelly musicals, and for the first time in his English-language career, he gets to pay tribute to both like never before. The first big action scene comes when Chon heads to New York to recruit Roy on his quest, and sees Jackie taking on several police officers inside of a revolving door in a clear tribute to his silent comedy influences, but he’s just getting started there.
Shortly after their arrival in London, Chon and Roy very quickly find themselves fighting off a street gang while trying to retrieve Roy’s stolen watch from the pickpocketing orphan. The whole thing morphs into Jackie’s version of “Singin’ in the Rain”, and you simply have not lived until you’ve seen Jackie Chan channeling Gene Kelly! Interestingly, Jackie also pays tribute to his own work later in the film when he finds himself battling a cadre of sword-wielding guards in Buckingham Palace, and gains a strategic (and very funny) advantage when he sees their concern for not causing any damage to a room of priceless British artifacts. This sequence is the perfect inverse of the finale of “Rush Hour”, where Jackie is forced to fight off a team of henchman while simultaneously protecting damage to priceless Chinese relics.
The finale is the only time the film sets aside its silliness and plays it straight, with Chon, Roy, and Lin teaming up to thwart Wu Chow and Rathbone’s assassination plot. This was back during Donnie’s pre-“Ip Man” days, and although his and Jackie’s duel is a tad on the short side, it’s not one to be missed. Donnie, in one of his very few English-language roles thus far, pretty much steals the whole movie in this sequence, and our hero finds himself dominated by his foe to a degree not seen at any point in either film. There are two villains at the center of the plot, however, and far from being just a pompous rich boy, Lord Rathbone is an absolutely remarkable swordsman with seemingly no weakness for our two heroes to exploit. Ultimately, Wu Chow and Rathbone discover that they share something else besides a pathological lust for power. As Batman once observed, they never learned to mind their surroundings.
“Shanghai Knights” is a transparently goofy romp of a film with more historical inaccuracies and anachronisms than you could possibly count, and that’s precisely why it works so well. Like its predecessor, it balances action and comedy flawlessly, and rarely has the concept of alternate history been put to such great use. If you liked “Shanghai Noon” (and how could you not?), rest assured, you will absolutely love “Shanghai Knights”!
- During the making of the film, the cast and crew wanted to throw a party to celebrate Jackie’s birthday, but he asked them not to, given that his mother had recently passed away and the traditional Chinese mourning period lasts three to twelve months. They went ahead and threw him a birthday party anyway, but Jackie did not protest because, in his words, “it is an important part of the American culture to celebrate birthdays”.
- Jackie Chan personally chose David Dobkin to direct the film.
- The old man bouncing in the pillow fight scene is actually first assistant director Mirek Lux.