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Once again I am given irrefutable evidence that Jackie Chan, the master of kung fu comedy, is slowing down and stopping. The stunts throughout his career are like the roller coasters at Coney Island. The first ones were the biggest, and lately, they just get smaller and smaller, pale imitations of those first rushes. Since running down the side of a sky scraper four or five years ago in Who Am I? Chan has relied more on tried-and-true fight choreography interspersed with more and more "character development."
Shanghai Noon, a movie with a clever title, pairs Chan with an outlaw played by Owen Wilson. This casting decision seems similar to the decision to cast Chris Tucker instead of Chris Roc in Rush Hour. When you see the name "Owen Wilson" in lights, your likely response is "Owen who?" And at the end of the film you'll say, "Owen Friggin' Wilson--that's who! And who friggin' cares?"
Set in a dubious 1881, the film has Chan playing a Chinese imperial guard who wheedles his way to America as part of a rescue team sent to recover a kidnapped princess. Things are hard for Chan as his rigid code of behavior doesn't allow him a lot of room for improvisation. The first thing that happens is that his uncle, acting as interpreter on the mission, is killed by a crazy member of Owen Wilson's gang. There is a well shot tussle on a locomotive. It's a lot like other train fights you've seen, but this one has Jackie Chan in it!
Somehow Chan winds up fighting some Native Americans and this is a really good fight scene with Chan and opponents bouncing off trees and using young pines as weapons. For the most part, its good choreography, but shot much more piecemeal than Chan's earlier fight scenes which stayed with one camera shot and showed whole bodies for long periods of time. If you ask me, I'll take the slow, whole-body approach any day because it shows off the agility and strength of the combatants. Flash cuts and close-ups are the martial artist's cop-out, leaving agility and strength for the viewer to fill in with his or her imagination. Don't believe me? Just ask Jet Li, that far inferior kung fu maven.
Well, Jackie winds up being rescued by another tribe of natives. He eats with them, smokes a pipe, gets high, and wakes up married to a strong and beautiful squaw. She vows to keep an eye on him as he treks on in search of the princess. Re-enter Outlaw Owen just in time for a saloon fight. Chan recycles a lot of tricks here, and Owen proves himself to be about a third of the fighter than Chan is, but three times the physical comedian.
After this bonding experience, the two become partners. Sure, they have their fights and tribulations, but from here on out, you know they have each other's back. Eventually, they find the princess, held captive by an evil ex-Imperial guardsman.
The big fight between our goody-goodies and baddy-baddies takes place in a church and incorporates some good stunts. If you're used to kung fu movies, you're used to handy items like ropes, chairs, knives, and staves appearing within reach of the fighters at crucial points in a fight. This fight is no exception, and the baddie's demise is as scripted as any kung fu fight ever was. He gets just a big ol' death.
And that's not all that's scripted. With Chan slowing down his physical wizardry, he's beginning to rely more and more on characterization. But characterization is a brand new art for Chan, and he's still a novice, using highly predictable "movie moments," the kind that make you go "Aw" unless you've already seen the like many times over. For instance, Shanghai Noon contains the "straight-laced character becomes intoxicated and a lot more likeable" scene. And the "silent character finally says something, and it's sassy, and everyone goes 'Wha- huh?!'" scene. And the "cavalry arrives just in time" scene. And the "one character overhears another character badmouthing him and gets his feelings hurt" scene, which automatically precipitates the "I heard you say such-and-such about me, so now you can go your own way" scene.
There's a scene that takes place with Chan and Wilson in prison. Chan says they can escape by pretending one of them is sick and then tricking the guard and attacking him. Wilson says it's an old trick that may still play in China, but is way overdone in the U.S. It's ironic that a U.S. viewer could say the same about so many scenes in this film. Like the "wall gets torn clean off the back of the prison" scene. Or the "Everyone laughs at the foreign newcomer scene." Or the "princess has her identity compromised, but remains aloof and graceful" scene.
But let me sum up as I keep finding myself doing with Chan's contemporary
efforts. Rent earlier movies. They're better for what they ought to be.
Chan was a master of kung fu, acrobatics, and physical comedy. Now that
he's finally garnered a US audience, he has lost his steam, but plods on
setting the same old tricks in new settings each time. Next I would predict
a space setting, a 20's gangster setting, or a team-up with Bugs Bunny and
Daffy Duck. No matter what, it will disappoint people who know and love
Chan for his martial arts prowess. The best move Chan could make, artistically,
would be to re-release his older movies in the US--and then retire. But
this is as likely to happen as the bad guy winning in the end.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.