I would prefer not to say that Jackie Chan, by the sheer power of his goofy charisma, is able to cut our IQs in half and make us accept cornball, lowball humor. I’d much rather say that he wins us over — invites us to become undiscriminating eight-year-olds for two hours, laughing at whiskered jokes and hooting at elaborate displays of chop-socky. If Chan has a co-star of equal charisma — Michelle Yeoh in Supercop, say, or Owen Wilson in Shanghai Noon — so much the better.
Shanghai Noon is perfectly pleasant doofus entertainment. Approaching 50, Jackie Chan still hasn’t lost his taste for slapstick mayhem; he dives into it with the gusto of a man half his age, though perhaps a little more slowly these days. (Gone, it seems, are the days when Chan could vanquish hordes of villains in one amazing, unbroken cut; he’s beginning to rely on editing to help him out.) But Chan can still clown with the best of them, and now that Jim Carrey is starting to dabble in more mature fare, Chan is the last great physical comedian.
He gets a workout in Shanghai Noon, which transplants him from the Forbidden City of China to the Wild West (it’s 1881). Chan plays Chon Wang, a bumbling Imperial Guard who goes to America to find the kidnapped Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu), apparently so named only so that someone can mispronounce it. Chon encounters an equally bumbling train robber, Roy O’Bannon (Wilson), who performs roughly the same function Chris Tucker did in Chan’s 1998 Rush Hour — except that, unlike Tucker, Wilson isn’t actively annoying. Aloof at first, the two men gradually warm to each other, in the time-honored buddy-movie fashion.
The movie walks the line between good stupid humor and embarrassing stupid humor, and usually manages to stay on the good side. Partly, I think, it’s because Shanghai Noon has been made with sincere affection for the Western genre; this isn’t a cold, wannabe hip mess like Wild Wild West. Though allegedly set in 1881, the film hardly tries to be true to how people talked or acted back then, especially in the case of Roy, who is so 20th-century he’s as much a fish-out-of-water as Chon is — Roy may be the only cowboy in movie history who engages in self-defeating inner monologues (“You’re gonna die. He’s gonna kill you”) during a gunfight. Roy owes a lot to Gene Wilder’s character in Blazing Saddles; the movie cribs a lot more than that from Mel Brooks’ groundbreaking spoof, but if you’re in the mood for Shanghai Noon you’re not really in the mood for originality.
It also helps that the movie is as light-hearted as Chan himself. The director, Tom Dey, is a Brown University graduate and TV-commercial veteran (he works for Ridley Scott’s firm) making his feature debut; he distributes the gags at a steady pace, and if one of them isn’t that great, he shrugs and sets up the next one. And he has a fine team in Chan and Wilson, whose acting styles — Chan’s antic slapstick and wounded dignity, Wilson’s laid-back befuddlement and contemporary irony — mesh so well that the characters actually seem to have a history together by the end. This is one summer movie I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to.
One slight disappointment for Chan fans will be the end credits, which traditionally show outtakes of Chan hurting himself when a stunt goes wrong. We enjoy these outtakes not because we like to see Chan in real pain, but because it adds to our appreciation of what he goes through to entertain us. Here, the outtakes mostly amount to Chan blowing his lines, which indicates that he’s not taking as many risks as he used to — that, heaven forbid, he’s actually becoming sensible in his autumn years. Well, if Chan’s looking for a way to pass gracefully into less strenuous movie work, he could do worse than Shanghai Noon, which gives him a serviceable script, a director who stays out of the way, and a bright co-star. I hope Chan remembers that formula during the next decade or so.