Rated PG-13 - Running Time: 1:50 - Released 5/26/00

As Jackie Chan's popularity builds in the United States, it becomes clear that the best formula for his films is to give him a comic American sidekick to smooth over the language difficulties and provide a balance for his amazing kung fu acrobatics. Although there is no doubt that Chan is talented at leaping, kicking, and punching, his comic style is weak and his English not exactly fluent. Proof of this is easy to see by looking at his last two American releases, Rush Hour, which paired him with black comedian Chris Tucker for a resounding box office success, and Twin Dragons, an overdubbed 1992 Hong Kong film that paired him only with himself, and was amateurish, overlong, and unfunny.

The producers of Shanghai Noon (of which Chan is one) have learned this lesson and supplied him with a new partner and an arguably better setting (the old West), and even though Chan is still better at delivering punches than punch lines, Owen Wilson more than makes up for it. Not being much of a fisticuffs fan, I'm tempted to say that Wilson is the only reason to watch the film, but I can see why kung fu enthusiasts would consider him merely an interesting supporting character to Chan's fist-and-foot stylings; at any rate, Wilson is the glue that holds the story together, and propels Shanghai Noon to the same stature held by Rush Hour. An important difference, however, is that Rush Hour was released in September, after the summer blockbusters had already done most of their damage; this film, unleashed in May, is already up against the likes of Mission: Impossible II, Gladiator, and Dinosaur, with plenty more yet to come. Even with Chan, it may not have the kick to compete.

Directed by freshman Tom Dey (who, incidentally, is currently at work on a Chris Tucker vehicle scheduled for release later this year), and penned by team writers Miles Millar and Alfred Gough (Lethal Weapon 4), Shanghai Noon focuses on a member of the Chinese imperial guard who is sent to the U.S. in 1881 to rescue the kidnapped princess Pei Pei (Lucy Alexis Liu, Ally McBeal). Chon Wang (Chan) is on a train bound for Carson City, Nevada, where the princess is being held for ransom by Chinese traitor Lo Fong (Roger Yuan), when he meets up with a gang of train robbers headed by Roy O'Bannon (Wilson). After a brief exchange of fists and bullets, the two are separated and Chon continues on foot. Dressed in full imperial guard regalia, he encounters a group of Crow Indians in the process of attacking a young Lakota; he fights them off and returns the boy to his people where he is welcomed by the tribe with the same warmth that greeted Kevin Costner in Dances With Wolves. He is christened "Man Who Fights In Dress" and given a wife, but Chon knows he must continue his trek.

When he runs into Ray again, they become partners (although Ray's involvement stems mainly from his discovery that Chon has in his possession the princess's ransom of 100,000 gold pieces) and soon find themselves in Carson City attempting to spring Pei Pei while evading psychotic Marshall Van Cleef (Xander Berkeley) and the disgruntled members of Ray's ex-gang.

Wilson's soft-spoken, beach-bum interpretation is in contrast with the old West setting, but it works hilariously. Although Ray is intent to look and act cool as a lawless gunslinger, he's not really into killing (or dying), and his relationship with Chon is humorous, too, each character incredulous at the other's sensibilities. The combination of Chan's fight sequences and Wilson's characterization make for a reasonably satisfying film (although I still say the fights are too long). ***½

Copyright 2000 by John R. McEwen and The Republican

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