It’s a little disturbing to realize that the first really good release of 2003 (late-2002 movies like About Schmidt, Chicago and The Hours, all of which only opened here after the new year, don’t count) is a goofy Jackie Chan/Owen Wilson action comedy — and a sequel no less.
No, Shanghai Knights is no a great work of cinematic art. No, it’s not going to change your life or plunge you into deep meditative thought. But for high-class silly fun, it’s hard to beat — and it’s a great recovery for Chan, who needed one in the worst way after the badly tailored Tuxedo. Moreover, Shanghai Knights is filled to overflowing with the sheer joy of moviemaking and movies for their own sake. Director David Dobkin has only one other feature to his credit, but he and screenwriters Alfred Gough and Michael Millar (and probably Jackie Chan) not only know movies, they obviously love them — and that affection comes through in nearly every scene and with nearly every set.
Sure, Shanghai Knights follows the action-comedy formula almost to the letter. It even starts with the obligatory “serious” setup that establishes the plot. In this case, it’s the theft of the Imperial Seal of China by the villainous Lord Rathbone (Aiden Gillen, best known for the British TV series Queer as Folk), who also murders the father (Kim Chan, Lethal Weapon 4) of Chon Wang (Chan), setting Wang’s sister, Lin (Fann Wong) on the road to vengeance, hoping to enlist her errant brother’s aid. Yes, the concept’s a saddening bore (because you’ve seen it 10 times or more), but you’ve rarely — if ever — seen it done with such style and panache.
Dobkin’s handling of this straight setup material is so lavish that it wouldn’t disgrace a genuine epic. Undoubtedly, the director was helped greatly in achieving these ends by the splendid contributions of cinematographers Adrian Biddle (The Mummy, The Butcher Boy) and Harvey Harrison (Salome’s Last Dance, The Witches), who have given the film a rich glow of heavily saturated colors (it’s just plain a damn beautiful-looking movie). Dobkin doesn’t skimp on this opening sequence, and it’s a good indicator of the manner in which he’s going to handle the entire film.
The bulk of Shanghai Knights is a crazy grab-bag of wild jokes, in-references to other movies, splendidly choreographed action sequences (not ruined this time with needless special effects) and a cheekily cavalier disregard for the realities of history. You expect the array of anachronistic bits of dialogue (“This country blows,” opines Owen Wilson when his already improbable surfer-dude tan is threatened by standing in the English rain), but you mightn’t be anticipating the “revisionist” notions of Charlie Chaplin and Arthur Conan Doyle that have somehow made it into this outrageous stew. (Happily, this is not the kind of quasi-serious — and faintly insulting — revisionism you find in certain Robert Zemeckis movies. This is all in fun.)
First and foremost, Shanghai Knights is a delirious repository of pop culture and filmic artifacts, which becomes quickly apparent when Chan’s first bout of comic acrobatics is accompanied by a Leroy Shield composition from Hal Roach’s old short films (Laurel and Hardy/The Little Rascals). Chan’s antics themselves are clearly Chaplinesque in approach (something later echoed in Randy Edelman’s original score, which is very much in the Chaplin mode). When the film hits England, we’re treated to “England Swings” (remember that?) by Roger Miller (remember him?) in yet another pop-culture reference of a sort that crops up throughout the movie. A little later, Chan gets to do a wonderful routine — possibly the best thing he has ever done on film — with umbrellas that pays homage to Gene Kelly doing “Singin’ in the Rain.” Wilson fantasizes about an idyllic existence with Chan’s sister, evoking the Beatles by imagining children named Vera, Chuck and Dave. There’s even a bit with a secret-entrance fireplace that’s probably inspired by Young Frankenstein, but really has as much or more to do with something out of an old Abbott and Costello thrill comedy. And the elaborate ending recalls Basil Dearden’s The Assassination Bureau, while also incorporating a great scene drawing from both Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last and Will Hay’s My Learned Friend.
The movie is playful and high-spirited and loads of just plain fun. The more you know of its references, the more you’re apt to enjoy it; but even if you don’t get any of the allusions, Shanghai Knights is savvy enough to know to be entertaining in its own right — and that’s a rare and precious commodity with pastiche films.