In the late 90’s, Jackie Chan finally managed to break out in Hollywood with the successes of “Rumble in the Bronx”, “First Strike”, and especially 1998’s “Rush Hour”. After finally completing his conquest of the West, the only place left to go was the Wild West, and in the year 2000, just in time for the turn of the millennium, Jackie would team-up with Owen Wilson to do just that in the buddy-comedy martial arts western romp, “Shanghai Noon”.
Jackie Chan leads the cast in the role of Chon Wang, an Imperial Guard for China’s Forbidden City tasked with retrieving the kidnapped Princess Pei Pei, played by Lucy Liu. He finds a most unlikely ally in the form of American outlaw Roy O’Bannon, played by Owen Wilson in what would ultimately be the role that shot him to superstardom. He also makes a great running joke out his constant mispronunciation of Chon Wang as “John Wayne”, and of course we can all agree with Roy’s assessment of that as “a terrible cowboy name!” Like our two heroes, the villains of the film are a pairing of East and West, in the form of the disgraced former Imperial Guard Lo Fong, played by Roger Yuan, and the bloodthirsty Marshall Nathan Van Cleef, played by Xander Berkley.
China’s Forbidden City, 1881. Princess Pei Pei, not wanting to marry the toadish prince she’s been betrothed to, flees to America with the assistance of her English interpreter, not knowing that she is actually being kidnapped. When the Imperial Guards receive the ransom note, demanding 100,000 pieces of gold for her return, Chon Wang along with his uncle volunteer to assist in her rescue. Unfortunately, the plan hits a snag when Chon’s uncle is killed by the newest recruit to the posse of outlaw Roy O’Bannon, and Chon finds himself separated from his fellow Imperial Guards. Eventually, he and Roy cross paths once again, and realizing the predicament he’s indirectly placed Chon in, Roy agrees to help Chon rescue Pei Pei.
Let’s just get this out of the way – yes, from a narrative standpoint, “Shanghai Noon” is essentially “Rush Hour” in the Wild West, but who would ever dream of complaining about that when the end result is this much fun? In fact, the way in which the film executes the formula of “Chinese law enforcement official teams with fast talking American sidekick to stop a kidnapping plot”, it’s actually a notch or two above the “Rush Hour” films. It’s easy to forget with the global community the world is evolving into in the 21st century what a culture shock the America of the 1880’s would have been to a foreigner, and “Shanghai Noon” plays it for everything it’s worth. Four days after his arrival in Nevada, Chon is already married to an Indian woman after a misunderstanding with her tribe, and the face paint and ceremonial dress he finds himself in is enough to convince the locals that he’s an Indian himself. However, the culture shock goes both ways, and since very few people in this time period of American history have seen Asian martial arts, Chon is able to take everybody from gunslingers to tomahawk-wielding Indians completely by surprise. There is also no shortage of Jackie’s classic practice of grabbing any unconventional weapon that he can use to his advantage, from using flexible evergreen trees as a weapon against his Indian opponents, fashioning a makeshift rope dart with a horse shoe to fight off his enemies, or using moose antlers in a saloon brawl. Probably the most memorable, however, is Jackie using his braided Queue as a whip, which is a rewind moment if ever there was one!
The film also has an almost perfect balance of action and comedy. Jackie’s chemistry with Owen Wilson is every bit as strong as it was with Chris Tucker, but rather than being a simple rehash of the head-butting that Carter and Lee engaged in during their initial meeting, Roy O’Bannon is genuinely fascinated by his new partner’s fighting abilities, and the comedic banter between our two heroes is so good that you never find yourself wishing for Jackie’s fists to start flying again. The Chinese drinking game that Chon introduces Roy to is absolutely hysterical, and surely anyone whose done jail time has at least tried our heroes unorthodox method for getting out of a prison cell. The downfall of so many comedies is that the humor frequently tends to peter out by the time the third act rolls around, but not in “Shanghai Noon”. This is film that is able to keep the laughter alive and strong from beginning to end, and knows how to weave it into the action sequences without making them feel unsatisfying. Jackie also has more of a legitimate enemy to overcome in single combat than he’d seen in his stateside career by this point in the form of the treacherous former Imperial Guard Lo Fong, played by accomplished stuntman Roger Yuan. He and Jackie have a brief confrontation at the beginning of the third act before facing off during the climax, and Roger truly shows that he’s got what it takes to portray a convincing villain in a Jackie Chan movie. Roy also has his own adversary in the form of Marshall Van Cleef, and for having such a good balance of martial arts action and comedy, the film is also careful to remember that it’s a Western and these two men are gunslingers. Like Chon and Lo Fong, Roy and Van Cleef get into a preliminary confrontation of sorts early on, staring each other down in preparation to see who’s the quickest draw of the two (Roy’s inner monologue as they face off is another area where the film blends action and comedy well). When they meet again in the finale, Roy is given the chance to rise above the simple comic relief he’s been up to until this point, and once again, the film is able to be genuinely funny in a serious situation.
For lovers of martial arts, comedies, and Westerns, “Shanghai Noon” is a must-see. Although Lucy Liu is unfortunately underutilized (and the film makes very clear at several points that she can take care of herself), the chemistry between Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson is flawless and never anything less than hilarious. The balancing act of action and comedy is a tough one indeed, but “Shanghai Noon” pulls it off in spades. Ultimately, the bad news is that it sadly does not earn the title of Jackie Chan’s best American film. The good news, however, is Chon and Roy still take that trophy anyway. Stay tuned for “Shanghai Knights”.
- Roger Yuan, who plays the villain Lo Fong in the film, also appears in another martial arts western, “Once Upon A Time in China and America”, alongside Jet Li and directed by Sammo Hung.
- One of Chon’s fellow Imperial Guards tasked with rescuing Pei Pei is played by Yu Rongguang, who is most well-known for playing the title character in “Iron Monkey” and would later appear alongside Jackie again in 2010’s “The Karate Kid”.
- Roy’s line, “I don’t know karate, but I know karazy, and I will use it!” is taken from James Brown’s song “Payback”, but it’s also anachronistic in another way – as the film takes place in 1881, the art of karate, in its present form, did not yet exist in Japan!