The last thing on the agenda for “Shanghai Knights” is to do anything its predecessor, “Shanghai Noon” (2000), didn’t already do. More scenes of Owen Wilson being anachronistically sardonic while Jackie Chan has entertaining fights with bad guys — that’s what we want to see.
“Shanghai Knights” delivers that, with an additional bit of creativity most sequels would skip: It offers homages to many classic films, particularly the slapstick films of the silent era. No attempt is made to pass Wilson and Chan off as another Laurel and Hardy or anything like that, but several situations they find themselves in resemble moments that will be pleasantly familiar to film buffs. (From the non-silent era, there is even a graceful, whimsically choreographed fight scene involving an umbrella, set to “Singin’ in the Rain.”)
I appreciate the extra effort in these nods to the great films of yesteryear, whether they add anything to the current story or not. “Shanghai Knights” is defined by that philosophy: You appreciate what it’s doing, you chuckle quite a few times, and you’re amused by its Chan-centric fight sequences. Is any of it new, and does any of it matter? No.
The film’s thin plot has Old West sheriff Chon Wang (Chan) reuniting with his old buddy Roy O’Bannon (Wilson), an incompetent, contemplative, high-living would-be gunfighter, to pursue the man who killed Chon’s father and made off with the Imperial Seal. They’ve tracked him to London, which is really just an excuse to get both of the fish out of water again, fighting with bobbies and befriending Dickensian street urchins.
Chon’s sister, Lin (Fann Wong), is in England, too, and the butt-kicking genes apparently ran strong in the Chon family. She flits in and out of the story as plot developments require; most of the film, in fact, is as casual as Owen Wilson’s delivery. Note the film’s setting of 1887, yet our heroes encounter a young Charlie Chaplin (who was born in 1889), see front-page headlines about Jack the Ripper (who wasn’t a full-blown serial killer until 1888), and sail past a Statue of Liberty still under construction (even though it was dedicated in 1886).
I confirmed these facts after just 60 seconds of Internet searching, and if this were any other movie, I would complain about the screenwriters’ laziness. In this case, though, I think it’s beside the point. History gets rewritten, facts are messed with, the dialogue is peppered with 20th century slang (“This country blows,” Roy says) — the matter at hand is that Wilson and Chan are funny together, Chan’s fights are as spectacular as ever, and Wilson gets to say things like, “I’m a 30-year-old waiter/gigolo. Where’s the future in that?”
Like the first film, this one finds legitimate chemistry between its mismatched stars, using their particular strengths and weaknesses against each other. One is verbally eloquent, one can barely speak English. One’s an amazingly gifted fighter, the other looks like his nose has been broken too many times. Wilson and Chan make sense together in a movie, and this one wisely keeps them together for most of the longish running time. It’s an easy-going lark; who doesn’t enjoy one of those?
B (1 hr., 55 min.; )