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SHANGHAI NOON

by: Scott Renshaw

Jackie Chan in another buddy action-comedy -- now there's something I didn't think I ever needed to see again. Sure, the formula proved extremely successful in 1998's $141 million hit Rush Hour. It also meant Jackie Chan fans had to endure the human audio torture device that is Chris Tucker, and that studios would persist in their foolish perception that American audiences might not embrace a film with Chan as its solo star. Shanghai Noon looked like a disaster waiting to happen -- formula piled upon formula, cheap gag piled upon cheap gag, Jackie Chan in another buddy action-comedy.

The next time an international action star comes calling on Hollywood, and needs a buddy action-comedy partner, I hope they pick Owen Wilson again. The quirky actor does something few actors have the ability to do: He can make you forget you're watching a formula film. Shanghai Noon opens in 1881, where independent-minded Chinese princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) wants to escape the Forbidden City and her arranged marriage. Unfortunately, she chooses as her escort to America a duplicitous translator, who turns Pei Pei over as a hostage to disgraced former Imperial Guard Lo Fong (Roger Yuan). Enter Chon Wang (Chan), a lower-tier Imperial Guard who accompanies a mission to recover the princess. On a train crossing Nevada, Chon Wang and company are accosted by a gang of thieves headed by Roy O'Bannon (Wilson). O'Bannon and Chon begin at odds, but eventually become riding partners (though O'Bannon's goal is more likely the solid gold ransom than the princess' safe return).

As was the case in Rush Hour, Chan's ability to hold up his end of the buddy partnership is never in question. There is something so instantly and immensely likable about Chan that it's almost unfair that he's also so physically gifted. His stunt work is again in top form in Shanghai Noon, finding more creative props for Chan to use as weapons against his foes: saplings, moose horns, horseshoes, a railroad log car, etc. Director Tom Dey and editor Richard Chew don't do Chan's work optimum justice -- too many sequences are chopped up when it has proved infinitely smarter over the years to let the camera sit still and watch Chan at work -- but they still possess that unique capacity to dazzle. A movie fight sequence is usually an obligatory piece of action business; a Jackie Chan fight sequence is the reason you never want to leave your seat during the action.

And Owen Wilson is the reason you never want to leave your seat during the exposition. His O'Bannon is a great, goofy comic creation, a big talker whose primary reason for being in the outlaw game appears to be impressing women. Any number of actors probably could have pulled off that characterization, but it's far more difficult to give it the strangely off-hand charm Wilson provides. His performance cashes in on the incongruity of his surfer-casual line readings, but it never depends on that incongruity. There's just something unexpectedly funny about the way Wilson handles even the most mundane, predictable moments. I spent half of Rush Hour pleading for Chris Tucker to get off the screen so I could enjoy Jackie Chan. No such problems in Shanghai Noon -- I felt a silly grin plastered across my face no matter which actor was being showcased.

If the raw material of Shanghai Noon had been stronger, it could have been a truly inspired comedy. Writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar pump some clever lines into the script, but it's still a bit too dependent on making fun of the names Pei Pei and Chon Wang (or rib-nudgingly naming one nasty cowboy Van Cleef). Then there are the lumbering plot development scenes, including references to Chinese railroad labor that seems included primarily for a sense of anachronistic moral superiority. In fact, the entire premise feels like a grand distraction from th

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