We gave it a C
In the slow-triggered ”action-comedy Western martial arts flick buddy pic” Shanghai Noon, Jackie Chan plays a 19th-century Chinese Imperial Guard who couldn’t be farther from home on the range in the American Wild West. With a long black pigtail flowing down the back of his embroidered tunic, fending off bad white men and rescuing good Indians (who, in gratitude, name him Man-Who-Fights-in-Dress), Chan clowns and whirls his way through American history, panning for laughs and showing the inventively nimble moves he’s still capable of — at reduced speed — in early middle age.
And in case you missed the cross-cultural pun in the title, here’s another: Disguising himself as a gun-toting cowboy in order to rescue the Chinese Princess Pei-Pei (”Ally McBeal”’s Lucy Liu), who has been spirited from the Forbidden City and held for ransom in frontier Nevada, the diminutive acrobatic hero calls himself Chon Wang. Ha ha, Pilgrim!
Certainly Chan is an unlikely pardner for Owen Wilson as Roy O’Bannon, a Sundance Kid wannabe whose hankering for gunslinger fame is regularly undone by his corner-cutting attitude toward the business of robbery. Wilson’s a charming portrayer of men who are wackier than their blasé-yuppie exterior suggests, but his Roy veers from comedically ornery to downright trying: He looks for a big laugh everytime he pronounces the princess’ name as ”pee-pee” rather than ”pay-pay.”
Thus uncomfortably yoked, the two amigos squabble their way through adventures, mishaps, and unexceptional fight sequences. There are a lot of one-liners heavy as tombstones in the strained script by ”Lethal Weapon 4”’s Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (”They’re not Injuns, woman, they’re… Jews!” an ignorant local tells his wife in a particularly lame non sequitur). And in his feature debut, director Tom Dey doesn’t exactly have a light touch with the nonverbal comedy load, either. (Roy makes fart bubbles in his bathtub — tee-hee, Pilgrim!)
Of the internationally famous Asian action stars who have kicked their way through crossover movies, Chan, with his elfin bounce, is perhaps the most adept at ”fish out of water” gymnastics. With his exceptional gift for physical comedy, he’s the easiest to read, wordlessly; his streaky and shrieky, all-action and all-mouth pairing with Chris Tucker in ”Rush Hour” was a great chemical success.
But ”Shanghai Noon,” which lacks ”Rush Hour”’s manic energy, also lacks confidence in its own much bigger, potentially fascinating story — an American tale of pageantry and history, whimsy and social resonance, embellished by Chan’s fancy footwork and Wilson’s drollery. This is an action-comedy, after all, that fleetingly acknowledges the miseries of 19th-century frontier Chinese slave labor, but focuses instead on a hammy Chan getting stoned on a peace pipe. What a waste of wampum.