The last time we saw the team of Hong Kong superstar Jackie Chan and somebody else, he was paired with Chris Tucker in the "Rush Hour" flicks (1998 and 2001), kung-fuing his way through modern America. These contemporary fish-out-of-water comedies were moderately successful. Then Chan teamed up with Owen Wilson for "Shanghai Noon" (2000) and began kung-fuing his way through the Old Wild West. This was a more innovative premise, used fresher material, and came off a bit funnier than most of the actor's previous efforts. Naturally, given Hollywood's predilection for sequels, another entry in the "Shanghai" series was inevitable. And just as inevitably, "Shanghai Knights" (2003) is not quite up to the level of its predecessor.
None of Chan's action comedies have much plot to speak of, and neither does "Shanghai Knights"; at least not a plot of any significance. Like most of his films, this one has a story line that mainly tries to get Chan and his partner into as many action situations as possible in the least amount of time. On this occasion, however, the script tries too hard in its desperate attempts for ideas, giving it a degree of sameness compared to Chan's other movies.
The time setting is 1887, and Chan, playing his Western character Chon Wang (say it fast and it sounds like "John Wayne"), is the sheriff of Carson City, Nevada. But not for long because his father, the Keeper of the Royal Seal in the Forbidden City, China, is murdered and the Seal stolen, prompting Wang to take off in pursuit of the baddies. The evildoers are Lord Nelson Rathbone (Aidan Gillen) and Wu Chan (Donnie Yen), very bad evildoers, indeed, so evil they intend to team up and take over the thrones of their respective countries. Rathbone (the name a takeoff on Basil, I presume) wants to be King of England and Wu Chan Emperor of China, and they're not about to let any rightful heirs get in their way. Somehow, the Royal Seal (no, not that kind of seal) is a way to consolidate their power; I forget how. Anyway, Wang's sister, Chon Lin (Fann Wong), calls upon her brother to help her track down the miscreants, where she has followed them as far as she could to London. On the way to London, Wang picks up his old saddle buddy, Roy O'Bannon (Wilson), in New York City to help out, and it's off to London they go.
Once in London the movie becomes a free-for-all. They no sooner arrive than they are in a battle royal with local ruffians, no surprise since Jackie Chan's character wasn't in New York more than a day and got into a melee with the police. Then there are fights with more cops, with guards, with Rathbone's men, with Wu Chan's men, with Rathbone himself, and with Wu Chan. Oh, and a few miscellaneous fights in between. They are all well staged and well choreographed by Chan, but, like the plot, after the first few of them they all begin to look and feel the same. One fight in particular stands out, though, because it includes a sweet and clever takeoff on "Singin' in the Rain." Unfortunately, it lasts only a moment and then it's back to the usual punch-and-tumbles. Not even a bit about a revolving secret passageway ripped off from "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" and later "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" can help a story line generally bereft of much wit or style.
Jackie Chan never changes in any of his movies, no matter who he's playing. He always remains his sweet, charming, honest, trustworthy, slightly naive, innocent, martial arts-expert self, forever the underdog who triumphs in the end and forever our good friend. He continues to be a pleasure to watch, but his persona alone can't sustain an entire movie. His sidekick, O'Bannon, is a bit more of an amiable jerk this time out, though, more self-centered and self-serving than ever. He's making a living as a waiter when we meet up with him, yet he says he's sold over a million copies of dime novels he's written about his phony exploits out West. Hard to understand where his money went except to say he likes to live high and spend freely. The other major character, Wang's beautiful sister, is a combination karate artist, serious do-gooder, and giddy schoolgirl. Needless to say, O'Bannon takes a fancy to her.
The acrobatics in the film are as much fun as always, Chan ever graceful and balletic, and the scenery of old London is lovely to look at; but as I've said, the endless, needless brawling gets old very fast. The movie shows up well, but there is not much in it that hangs together, just a series of rather senseless, comically violent episodes with little rhyme or reason to them; the film is all pretty tourist postcards interspersed with comedic action, most of it accompanied by very loud, contemporary pop music that is more incongruous than cute. Motion without excitement, action without suspense, and silliness without humor add up to less than what could have been, given the cast, the locations, and the big, big budget.
Despite the sameness of the story line, there is more to the package than the movie. This is without a doubt one of the finest DVD transfers Buena Vista has yet produced. The THX-mastered video offers a wide, 2.13:1 ratio anamorphic picture in colors that are beautifully rich, deep, and vivid. There is still a smidgeon of fuzziness in object outlines, but otherwise the whole affair is quite striking, the screen image displaying virtually no grain, no pixilation, and very few shimmering lines. In other words, you may have more fun enjoying the picture quality than enjoying the film's threadbare plot, characters, and action.
The audio, too, is excellent, although it is not called upon to produce anything as dramatic as the picture is. The dynamics of the Dolby Digital 5.1 processed sound are very strong; the frequency range is wide; and the channel separation is outstanding. Understand, there are not a lot of surround effects present, but when they are used, they are quite convincing, things like water running, birds chirping, bullets flying, peripheral voices, thunder and rain, fire and fireworks, most of it subtle but effective.
The extras include two feature-length audio commentaries, one with director David Dobkin and another with writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. The major interest, in any case, may be in the eleven deleted scenes that comprise almost a half an hour of viewing. They're offered in a rather ragged non-anamorphic widescreen, but they give us an idea of some of the stuff that was cut out of the film, for whatever reason. Then there are two brief featurettes: "Fight Manual," about nine minutes of behind-the-scenes choreography on the stunts and fights, and "Action Overload," a minute and a half's worth of action and music, video-style. Finally, there are a meager sixteen scene selections and a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual calibration tests. English and French are provided as spoken language options, with Spanish subtitles and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Let me end on a few trivia notes since "Shanghai Knights" plays fast and loose with history and historical events. For instance, one of the characters in the film is a Scotland Yard Inspector, Arthur Conan Doyle, who wants to be a writer. The real Doyle practiced medicine until 1891, publishing his first Sherlock Holmes novel the very year this movie takes place, 1887. Another character is a boy of about ten or twelve named Charlie Chaplin, only the real Chaplin wasn't born until 1889. There's a reference to the serial killer Jack the Ripper, but the real Ripper committed his murders a year later in 1888. There's also a reference to investing money in the Zeppelin, but Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin would not invent his airship until 1900. And the movie ends with references to Hollywood and filmmaking, except that Thomas Edison and W.K.L. Dickson would not develop the first practical motion-picture projector for two more years, Hollywood would not be a city as such until 1903, and the first movies would not be made in Hollywood until 1908-1911. The boys also drive about in an automobile that looks about twenty years beyond the period, but I can't be sure, and by now you get the point.
"Shanghai Knights" is a boisterous, frolicsome picture that makes little sense and doesn't seem to care. The scriptwriters' primary intent appears to be letting Chan and Wilson visit as many famous locales as they can in and around the city of London and have the pair tear the places up as quickly as possible. I would not personally pay good money to own the disc, but it might serve as light, mindless rental fare as the occasion demanded.