Shanghai Noon

Directed by Tom Dey
Starring: Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Lucy Liu, Roger Yuan, Xander Berkeley, Walter Goggins.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for action violence, some drug humor, language and sensuality.

Review by Matt Heffernan
May 26, 2000

Can the western survive in the 21st century? The last major work in the genre, Wild Wild West, was an ill-conceived flop that depended on silly anachronisms and lame jokes to sustain the interest of today's youth. A straight western like High Noon (which has nothing to do with this week's release) is hard to come by these days. What sells is action-comedy, and at least this latest merger with the western is somewhat entertaining.

In Imperial China, 1881, Princess Pei-Pei (Lucy Liu) is being forced to marry a loathsome prince. Her English teacher (Jason Connery) offers to take her to America, but the plan turns out to be a scheme for Lo Fong (Roger Yuan), an exiled traitor who runs a quarry in Carson City, to collect a ransom from the emperor. An interpreter, three skillful imperial guards, and Chon Wang (Jackie Chan), the interpreter's bungling nephew in the guard, are sent to deliver a box containing 100,000 gold pieces and return with the princess.

On the train to Carson City, a gang of outlaws led by Roy O'Bannen (Owen Wilson) rob the passengers. Unfortunately, a new member of the gang, Wallace (Walter Goggins), gets carried away and shoots the interpreter. After a prolonged scuffle, Chon Wang is separated from the rest of his party, and sets out to find the princess himself. He meets up with Roy (who was ousted from the gang by Wallace), and they get into some trouble. Now, they are on the run from Marshall Van Cleef (Xander Berkeley), and they become an unlikely pair of heroes in pursuit of rescuing the princess.

It's incredible how Jackie Chan's movies have very similar premises to video games. There's a lot of fast-paced action, all with a lofty goal. Since we are sitting powerless in a dark theatre, we depend on Chan to play the game for us. Setting Shanghai Noon in the Old West allows the film to have a message about racism. Of course, no one should expect this film to deal with the topic seriously. Instead, we are treated to a barrage of high kicks and old-fashioned gunplay. That does work to an extent, but the film's apparent desire to say something hampers the fun.

The screenplay by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (Lethal Weapon 4) provides a few good laughs in the right places, helping to overcome some of the heavy-handedness. Tom Dey makes his directorial debut, and he manages to keep the pace quick through the uneven script. The action scenes are well-orchestrated, but nothing as insane-looking as Chan's Hong Kong films. When the time comes for the usual outtakes, they're the more traditional acting flubs instead of dislocated shoulders and cracked skulls.

There are a few more western-ish films coming out this year, including Billy Bob Thornton's All the Pretty Horses and Steve Miner's Texas Rangers, which puts the current teen crop in chaps and spurs. It's hard to say how they'll turn out, or whether they'll keep the genre exciting and relevant. Personally, I don't really care -- as long as I can still watch Gary Cooper on TV.

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Shanghai Noon (2000)

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Review © 2000 Matt Heffernan