Everybody Chon Wang tonight
While Shanghai Noon was an offbeat Western send-up that showed Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson at their best, Shanghai Knights is a pallid, irritating mess of a sequel. The charm of the original film’s Western setting is lost as the pair head off for Victorian England, where they encounter numerous Brit stereotypes and little humor of redeeming value.
Chan returns as Chon Wang, which sounds a lot like John Wayne (doh!), who must journey to England to hunt down his father’s murderer. Before disembarking, he visits New York City, where former partner Roy O’Bannon (Wilson) lies in wait, ready to discharge discordant one-liners with a surfer-boy attitude.
They head for England, where they meet up with one of the more repugnant and frightful characters known to film. I am not referring to the enemy they seek (more on him later), but the wily, precocious street urchin boy with the cockney accent.
Let it be known throughout the world that cinema has very few characters more abrasive or terrifying than the wily street urchin boy with a cockney accent. Satan incarnate.
This kid is hard on the ears, his character made all the more ridiculous by the revelation that he is, in fact, a young Charlie Chaplin. The moment he chirps “Allo Guvna!” it becomes clear that the next 90 minutes will be haunted by frequent interludes of some cutesy kid butchering the English accent. (Writer’s note: Aaron Johnson, the young actor who plays Chaplin, is, in fact, British. However, the cockney variation of his own accent is still an aural aberration, and the previous statement stands.)
The villain our heroes seek is the dreaded Rathbone (Aidan Gillen), who is plotting an elaborate assassination of Queen Victoria. Gillen is a scenery chewer, and his hairdresser should be shot. He has a huge crease running across his forehead, and his spiked-up hairdo reveals it in all of its furrowed glory. Somebody must’ve picked up on the forehead crease, which I will liken to the Grand Canyon, while watching dailies. I say this because, for the second half of the film, a single, solitary Superman curl is brought down to try and divert attention from the forehead crevice. Regrettably, this proves an ineffective diversionary tactic.
In Shanghai Noon, the martial arts kicked hearty ass, especially during the sequence where Chan used pine trees to pummel his attackers. In Knights, Chan is letting the clown within overcome the choreography.
There’s always been a Keaton-Chaplin charm to some of his fight work, but here he goes too far. A sequence in which he battles the Keystone Cops (wearing what appear to be felt hats) in a revolving door, complete with goofy slapstick music, is painfully tired. Another fight, where he utilizes an umbrella for a Singin’ in the Rain homage, is an embarrassment to Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and just about everybody else who has crooned while being showered by various condensations.
Wilson is always appealing, but he seems lost trying to make the trite material flow. He’s just too talented to be slumming in Knights. The man who co-wrote and starred in Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tennenbaums has a tendency to occupy sub-par material (Behind Enemy Lines, aka, Run, Owen, Run) when not working with Wes Anderson. His future slate includes a movie adaptation of Starsky and Hutch, so no changes in career trajectory seem to be afoot.
As sequels go, Shanghai Knights falls into the realm of the completely unnecessary.
It will undoubtedly make tons of money, paving the way for more Chan sequels, all part of a money machine that will just keep on churning until Chan’s head falls off after one stunt too many.