Shanghai Knights suffers from a bad case of sequelitis. All it really does is take the two characters from Shanghai Noon, a Chinese immigrant in the Old West named Chon Wang (Jackie Chan) and a small-time sharpie named Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson), and send them to London for a change of scenery. The story just rambles along, picking up more or less where the original left off (but quietly dropping Wang’s Native American bride) as if the filmmakers thought the original would have been twice as funny if it had been four hours long.
Although it’s set sometime toward the end of the 19th century, the exact time period is hard to pin down. There’s talk of Queen Victoria’s 50th anniversary on the throne (1887), the rampage of Jack the Ripper (1888), a view of the Tower Bridge (completed in 1894), an automobile from about 1908, and references to the new movie business out in California (1912). Of course, Shangai Knights isn’t supposed to be a documentary; it’s just fun to notice stuff like that.
At any rate, Wang heads to London when he learns that his father, keeper of the Imperial Seal of China, has been murdered and that his sister Chon Lin (Fann Wong) has tracked the killer, Lord Rathbone (Aidan Gillen), and the stolen seal back to the British capital. On the way east, Wang stops in New York to get his share of the treasure he and Roy landed at the end of the first movie. But Roy has lost the gold and is working as a hotel waiter (and gigolo on the side). There’s no point going into too much detail here, but one thing leads to another, and Roy accompanies Wang to London. Once there, Wang and Lin are reunited, and the three of them go after Lord Rathbone, helped (and occasionally hindered) by a 10-year-old pickpocket named Charlie Chaplin (Aaron Johnson) and a dweeby Scotland Yard detective named Arthur Conan Doyle (Tom Fisher).
That kind of name-dropping will give you an idea of the level of humor in Alfred Gough and Miles Millar’s script. Essentially, they take the signature joke from Shanghai Noon—Roy’s reaction to Chon Wang’s name: “John Wayne? That’s a terrible name for a cowboy!”—and run with it. Even the soundtrack burbles with in-jokes: quotes from Roger Miller’s “England Swings” and The Who’s “My Generation,” a Chan routine with an umbrella that morphs into “Singin’ in the Rain.” With all this, what Shanghai Knights resembles more than anything else is one of the old Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road pictures but without that series’ occasionally inspired vaudeville surrealism—and without the seemingly ad-libbed banter carefully crafted by Hope’s stable of gag writers.
The banter between Wilson and Chan hardly reaches the Hope-Crosby level of fizz. Not that it couldn’t; the two stars are comfortable with each other, and Chan’s English gets better with every movie. But Gough and Millar and director David Dobkin (taking over from Noon’s Tom Dey) have settled on a pretty rigid division of labor for them: Wilson handles the wisecracks while Chan performs (and, as always, choreographs) the martial arts-slapstick fights.
Also as always, Chan’s fights (and those involving Wong as his equally skilled sister) are witty and intricate and are performed at approximately twice the speed of sound. But Dobkin doesn’t build the film; it falls into a monotonous rhythm—Wilson grumbles, Chan fights, Wilson whimpers, Wong fights, Wilson mewls, Chan and Wong fight—until the film begins to feel longer than it is. Making each fight a little more elaborate than the last and beefing up the puny plot might have given the film a payoff, but that never happens. What we get is like the difference between a musical concept album and a composer simply noodling on the piano at a cocktail party (“and then I wrote …”).
Chan’s exuberant charm is hard to resist when he’s allowed to deploy it, and at least here he’s not shackled as he was in last year’s dismal The Tuxedo. His fans probably will be satisfied. Then again, they might want to wait for the video or, for that matter, go back and rent Shanghai Noon again.