Not since "The Valley of the Gwangi" -- a dinosaur Western -- has there been a movie better positioned to thrill my 9 year-old son than "Shanghai Noon" -- a Jackie Chan Western.
Okay, okay, I admit it. I was really looking forward to this movie, too.
And there is a lot to like in "Shanghai Noon" besides the neat pun in the title. There are several of Jackie Chan's patented set action pieces where he performs feats of athletic martial arts wonder, some hilarious "Blazing Saddles"-style humor, and Jackie's own estimable charm.
Unfortunately, "Shanghai Noon" is almost equally an Owen Wilson comedy/Western. That means how much of a kick you get out of this movie also depends on how much you like Wilson; and I thought his anachronistically modern, weasely con-man routine was sometimes funny, but wore very thin after a while.
Chan stars as Chon Wang, the bumbling nephew of the Chinese interpreter sent to Carson City in 1881, to negotiate the release of a kidnaped Chinese princess (Lucy Liu of "Ally McBeal"). But a bungled train robbery led by smug outlaw Roy O'Bannon, (Wilson) ends up with the uncle dead and Wang and Roy afoot in the wilderness.
After saving an Indian youth from a rival tribe in the movie's first really good action sequence (which at 20 minutes in, is awfully tardy for a Jackie Chan movie) Wang finds himself named "Fights in Dress," and married to the chief's daughter in the fim's funniest scene.
Driven by duty, Wang continues his quest to rescue the princess, and finds himself dogged by Roy -- who claims to want to make up for the death of Wang's uncle, but is more interested in finding the ransom -- and trailed by his wife, whose marksmanship comes in handy.
"Shanghai Noon" pokes fun at nearly every Western convention from Gene Autry oaters to Spaghetti Westerns. There are at least a half dozen big laughs (which means it's not nearly as funny on purpose as "Battlefield Earth" is by accident) and, besides his fight with the Indian braves in the woods, a bar fight with the usual Chan ingenious use of props, and a sequence in which he uses a horseshoe tied to a rope to battle the bad guys are also highlights.
Unfortunately, there are lo-o-ng stretches in which director Tom Dey seems to think that Chan and Wilson have the comedic chops and chemistry to carry a Bing and Bob-style road movie. This is a similar mistake to the one made by the makers of "Rush Hour." But in that Chan outing, Chris Tucker's hilarious performance made the slower pace easier to take.
Here, that formula is not nearly as successful. Not only is Owen Wilson often irritating in the extreme, Wang forgets too easily that Roy is at least indirectly responsible for his uncle's death. There is no reason for anyone to like this guy as a person.
This is Jackie Chan's second big budget American movie. So far, the only advantage that has come from Jackie Chan making his movies in America has been the elimination of the dubbed voice overs. Neither Dey, nor "Rush Hour" director Brett Ratner, have understood that while Chan is a charming comedian, people go to a Jackie Chan movie to gasp and say, "I can't believe he did that!" as he performs his own eye popping stunts.
Furthermore, Dey's pedestrian direction threatens to drain the fun from even the good stuff, by finding the least interesting way to shoot nearly every scene.
To really break out, Jackie Chan needs to quit working with rookie American hacks, and demand a top-rung American director. Otherwise, he should go back to working with Stanley Tong and Sammo Hung, who really understand his tremendous appeal.