Back when I reviewed Shanghai Noon (2000), I was sufficiently charmed by it to write, “This is one summer movie I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to.” So, a little late (Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson were too busy with other films to get around to my request right away), we have Shanghai Knights, whose plot, I promise you, matters not at all. I trust that comes as a shock to no one. The Shanghai movies exist solely to exploit the unstable but winning chemistry between the sincere, physically adept Chan and the ironic, verbally adroit Wilson. They’re good for each other: Chan’s seriousness of manner gives Wilson something to react to, and Wilson has a calming effect on Chan.
Shanghai Knights picks up our heroes separately: Chon Wang (Chan) is a sheriff out West, shaking his head at the glorifying pulp novels written about his former partner Roy O’Bannon (Wilson), who’s out in New York. Back home in China, Chon’s father is killed, and his Imperial Seal stolen, by a nasty Brit amusingly named, in one of many old-movie nods, Rathbone (Aiden Gillen). Rathbone is in cahoots with the renegade Wu Yip (Donnie Yen); with the power of the Seal, they plot to become the King and Emperor of their respective countries. So Chon and Roy — along with Chon’s younger sister Lin (Fann Wong), a formidable martial-arts practitioner herself — head off to London to get their hands on the Seal and on the pair of murderers.
Wait, didn’t I say the plot didn’t matter? Killing off the father of one of the two leads in a comedy sequel seems a bit hefty (and leads to a bad scene where Chon mourns his father and stares at a photo of Jackie Chan as a boy posing with someone obviously PhotoShopped in as his father), but once the action moves to London things pick up considerably. Director David Dobkin doesn’t forget why we go to Jackie Chan movies: even though Chan, a year shy of fifty now, obviously uses a stunt double for some of the more perilous gags, he can still choreograph with the best of them, and there’s a terrific fight scene in which Chan uses everything at his disposal against a pack of London brawlers. Chan grabs an umbrella, opens it, and fends off his foes as Dobkin quietly insinuates “Singin’ in the Rain” onto the soundtrack.
Indeed, the movie has a lot of fun not only with movie history (there’s an orphan sidekick, reminiscent of a British Short Round, whose identity I’ll leave you to discover) but with British history circa 1887, the film’s setting. An eager young Scotland Yard inspector named Doyle (Tom Fisher) may ring some bells for mystery fans in the audience, and when Lin goes off on her own in the chilly night of Whitechapel she runs into — and speedily dispatches — exactly the person you want her to. (Some of the movie is like a slapstick riff on Caleb Carr’s The Alienist.) Mayhem also unfolds inside Madame Toussaud’s Wax Museum, and in and around Big Ben; one sequence involving a revolving fireplace triggered by pushing a statue’s breasts manages to quote from two Indiana Jones movies at once.
Shanghai Knights is fun, though a little draggier than its predecessor, and Owen Wilson doesn’t have as many zonked, insecure moments here as he got to run with in the original. (He does have a priceless expression of “I can’t believe this is happening to me, but I’m gonna roll with it” during an erotic dream sequence.) Jackie Chan’s best moment here is a swipe from Rush Hour, where he had to fight multiple attackers while trying to keep an urn from falling over; here he turns the tables, and the sequence really outdoes more than swipes. The movie is better than it had to be (and even looks better, what with ace cinematographer Adrian Biddle on board), and the mood of it is just amiable doodling; we don’t feel the pressure of a sequel to a big summer hit — the movie seems to have been made simply because these guys should get together again. The last scene has them talking about hitting Hollywood and getting into the movie business, and once again I’ll say it: I won’t at all mind seeing Shanghai Stars, or whatever they end up calling it.