Shanghai Noon is a hoot and a half, an action-comedy with its heart in the right place. Silly, fun and nowhere near historically accurate, this culture-clash western is a mishmash of styles and temperaments which somehow manages to find its own loopy logic.
Based on an idea from star Jackie Chan, screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar have fashioned a scenario where East reluctantly meets West. An elite squad of China’s Imperial Guards is dispatched to America’s rough-and-tumble frontier to rescue the ransomed Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu). She’s being held at an encampment of Chinese railroad workers which the villainous Lo Fong (Roger Yuan) oversees like his personal fiefdom.
When their Nevada-bound train is attacked by a gang of desperadoes led by Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson), it’s Chon Wang (Jackie Chan), not considered to be the best or the brightest guard, who foils the robbery. This commences his transformation from underappreciated underdog to full-fledged hero.
Director Tom Dey, making an assured debut with this action- and gag-packed film, allows the unlikely team of Chon and Roy to evolve organically (the ebullient Chan and the laconic Wilson display a terrific on-screen chemistry). It’s as if each provides what the other lacks, and together their weaknesses are transformed into strengths.
Chan has found the ideal outlet for his skills in Shanghai Noon. The former Hong Kong action star’s physical dexterity and inventive staging of fight sequences (give him a horseshoe and some rope and he can defeat an armed posse) recalls the best work of silent film comedian Buster Keaton.
While Chan is the film’s undisputed focus, the charismatic Wilson (Bottle Rocket) gives a slyly subversive performance as an outlaw who can’t shoot straight. The great character actor Xander Berkeley practically spits venom as a corrupt lawman; numerous undernourished secondary characters still manage to make a sizable impact.
Shanghai Noon rides roughshod over both the western genre and the traditional buddy film, creating an immensely entertaining hybrid in the process.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com.