It's been said that good things come to those who wait, and if there's a cinematic poster personality for that quote, it's easily Jackie Chan. A big star in his native Hong Kong, the forty-six-year-old actor has appeared in scores of films (a fair amount of which he's also directed and produced), yet it wasn't until the shocking success of 1998's "Rush Hour" (that grossed more than $140 million domestically) that Chan suddenly found himself a star here in the States.
With the release of his latest film, "Shanghai Noon," Chan is set to have another hit on his hands and become an even bigger star. That's because it's nothing short of a comedic blast to watch. On the surface, its underlying plot doesn't seem that different from "Rush Hour." In both, an Asian woman is kidnapped in the U.S., an unassuming but highly proficient martial arts expert is sent to retrieve her, and he teams up with something of an unconventional, oddball of a partner to save the hostage and defeat the bad guys.
The differences between the films, however, are not only what set the two apart, but also what make this film a far superior picture. Set in the Old West instead of the present, replacing the hyper and acerbic-tongued Chris Tucker with Owen Wilson in one of the funniest cowboy portrayals this side of "Blazing Saddles," and featuring a smart script that's far funnier than what "Rush Hour" sported, this film should play well to a huge cross-section of the moviegoing populace.
I've always been a huge fan of Chan's work (including "Rumble in the Bronx" and "Operation Condor"), and while age has marginally slowed down his amazing acrobatic abilities and he's done just about every conceivable stunt with nearly every imaginable prop possible, he still continues to amaze with both his physical work and the inventive nature of it. The results - as usual -- are incredibly entertaining to watch.
Despite all of the younger martial arts stars such as Jet Li who've come along with their own amazing abilities, few, if any, do the kind of material that Chan does and none certainly do it any better. In fact, and notwithstanding the physical side of his role - which will amaze those who've never seen his work and more than satisfy those who have - I don't believe I've ever seen Chan more comfortable as an actor.
Obviously more confident delivering his lines in English than in any of his previous efforts (his earlier films were dubbed), Chan perfectly plays the part and seems to be having the time of his life doing so. Not only does that make the role that much more entertaining, but the fun he's obviously having is contagious and the audience will most assuredly get a serious case of it while watching his performance.
As was the case with Tucker in "Rush Hour" who was present to complement Chan's physical side with equal amounts of humor, Owen Wilson ("Armageddon," "The Minus Man") was obviously cast to do the same and effectively steals the show from Chan.
Playing something of a cross between a charming con of a gunslinger and a contemporary surfer dude, Wilson is nothing short of delightful in the role and benefits from getting many of the film's best lines. He also plays well off Chan (in their cross racial and societal partnership) and most everyone else in the cast, especially Xander Berkeley ("Amistad," "Air Force One") as the steely marshal who's after him. While Wilson has been around and appeared in many features, this could and should be his big breakout role.
Like nearly every Chan film, the plot - written by Alfred Gough & Miles Millar ("Lethal Weapon 4," HBO's "Made Men") - is present as a skeleton upon which to hang the star's requisite action sequences. As is the case with most of those other films, such moments are nothing but pure cinematic delights, easily comparable in concept and execution to the physical shenanigans the likes of Buster Keaton used to entertain moviegoers decades earlier.
Chan's signature style consists of his ability to seemingly defy gravity and use most any prop within his vicinity at any given moment as a tool with which to defend himself. Here, that includes the inspired use of some small trees to defeat the efforts of some attacking Crow Indians (in a scene that has to be seen to be appreciated and believed), horseshoes to do the same to some posse members, and an antler rack that's used during a fun, martial arts-filled rendition of the standard barroom brawl.
The turning of the western genre's conventions on their head is part of the film's fun and charm, and first-time director Tom Dey (a former commercial director) takes advantage of doing so every opportunity he gets. From jokes about Roy mistaking Chon's name for "John Wayne" and then stating that it's a horrible name for a cowboy, to Chon learning the ropes of the Old West and Roy having to stretch before engaging in the standard pistol duel with a marshal, the overall effect is quite funny.
While some might not appreciate the "bastardization" of the genre - such as the playing of ZZ Top's somewhat contemporary and infectious "La Grange" during that barroom brawl - the historical alternations aren't difficult to accept and mostly manage to add to the film's overall zany aura.
Dey also manages to breathe some new life into the standard but tired buddy flick. While the film follows the traditional pairing of two polar opposite characters who have their ups and downs of liking or getting along with one another, the related writing and combination of Chan and Wilson in the roles seems fresh, and clearly benefits the film and the audience's enjoyment of it.
Other performances are generally okay, but obviously fall into the comedic shadows of their co-stars. Lucy Liu ("Play it to the Bone," TV's "Ally McBeal") plays the toughened but regal damsel in distress, but beyond participating in some last minute butt kicking, isn't given the opportunity to do much with the role.
Likewise, Roger Yuan ("Lethal Weapon 4," "Red Corner") and Walton Goggins ("The Apostle," "Major League III") can't do much with their standard villainous characters, but Brandon Merrill (a renowned rodeo champion making her acting debut) is fun as Chan's "wife," despite not being given many lines to speak and disappearing for some long and unexplained durations during the proceedings.
While the film may seem like nothing but an opportunistic retreading of "Rush Hour" (it was reportedly conceived during the making of that film), it's quite fun to watch. A fast-paced, entertaining and often hilarious picture, the film works on many levels, but mainly succeeds due to a smart script, able direction, and the great chemistry between Chan and Wilson. Throw in the amazing acrobatic stunts that Chan always provides, and the result is an enjoyable effort. Certain to entertain most every moviegoer and continuing the trend of finally giving Chan his long deserved due, "Shanghai Noon" may just be the comedy to beat this summer. It rates as a 7 out of 10.