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" Holy crap, the vultures are eating my head. "
— Owen Wilson, Shanghai Noon

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Shanghai Knights has only two things going for it: Jackie Chan’s graceful, dance-like fight scenes, and the camaraderie between Chan and Owen Wilson.

Unfortunately, these two strengths are surrounded by the flab of unfunny comedy and tedious plot. Even for this fan of Jackie Chan, Shanghai Knights is not worth the trip to the theater.

You Killed My Father!

Jackie Chan provides the film's saving grace
Jackie Chan provides the film’s saving grace

A followup to the western spoof Shanghai Noon, Shanghai Knights follows Roy O’Bannon (Wilson) and Chon Wang (Chan) to 19th century London.

Wang’s father, the Keeper of the Imperial Seal, is murdered in an opening scene. Wang’s sister Chon Lin (Fann Wong) witnessed the murder and tracked the killer and the stolen seal to England. Wang gets news of the event and heads to London with his old friend Roy where they meet up with Lin.

The threesome, along with a pair of soon-to-be-famous sidekicks, track the seal to the houses of high society London. They work to recover the seal and to take revenge on the man who killed Wang and Lin’s father.

Ground Rules

Shanghai Knights is a mess. A few ground rules would have helped immensely.

Soundtrack: At first the musical soundtrack is symphonic movie music, hinting at Chinese chords or Old West folksiness depending on the setting. So far, so good. But Jackie’s first set piece in a revolving door features silent movie-style jazz, which is 40 years ahead of its time. It sounds like a mistake by a careless boor of a music editor. Only later, when The Who’s Magic Bus plays on the soundtrack, do we realize that “anything goes.” At least A Knight’s Tale established the modern rock soundtrack in the opening scene.

History: Shanghai Knights also says “anything goes” with the history of the time. Jack The Ripper is striking, which sets the film in 1888. But then we see Arthur Conan Doyle as a Bobby (he never was), a bratty little Charlie Chaplin (who wasn’t born yet), and well-developed automobiles riding on inflated rubber tires with water-channeling treads. Some of these little anachronisms are intended as jokes, but they are a constant distraction, a reminder of how little respect this movie has for the intelligence of its audience.

Humor: Unfortunately, the one place where the movie follows a set of rules is in its sense of humor. Jokes must either 1) poke fun at British culture (Roy enjoys some haggis until he find out what it’s made of ) or 2) make wildly misguided jokes about the future (Roy dismissing the “ahh - toe - mo - beels” as a passing fad). A good joke needs the element of surprise. Re-using these same types of jokes (or repeating the same wax museum gag three times) just looks desperate. The only good laughs in Shanghai Knights are the three I had already seen in the trailer.

Two Points

I said there were two points in Shanghai Knights’ favor. The camaraderie between Wilson and Chan is charming. They look like good friends, and they look like they’re having fun. Their camaraderie is enjoyable, but nowhere near enough to save a feature film.

Which leaves one shining bright spot, namely Jackie’s well-choreographed, well-photographed fight scenes. The last few Jackie Chan movies (The Tuxedo, The Accidental Spy) have suffered from overediting. He finally seems to have heard the complaints and done a little better. Each set piece is well choreographed so that you can actually follow what’s going on at any given moment. Cinematographer Adrian Biddle holds each shot longer, and captures a wider field of view, so that we can watch the skill and grace of Chan without interruption.

Too Few Points

I wish the fight scenes were good enough to save this movie. I wish the comedy were funnier. I wish the anachronisms weren’t so distracting. Wilson and Chan are such affable stars that I hate not recommending their movie.

But with so little going for it, Shanghai Knights deserves to be overlooked.