2 overlooked Shanghai comedies

In June of 2019, I wrote an article about the excellent comedies that came out at the turn of the current century – funny movies from 1998 to 2000. Strangely, I forgot to include one of my favorites, Shanghai Noon (2000). I liked it so much that, after seeing it in a theater, I bought the DVD.

The sequel, Shanghai Knights, came out three years later. Bad reviews kept me away, until the DVD was available. That’s when I discovered that the reviews were wrong – and I bought that disc, too. I give both movies a B+, but the sequel is just a little bit better.

In Shanghai Noon, Jackie Chan and a not-yet-famous Owen Wilson turn the American western on its head. As a Chinese Imperial Guard on a mission to Nevada, Chan gets to play the fish out of water. He uses his Kung Fu in an otherwise conventional saloon fight for comic effect – even if it’s not as exciting as the fights in his Hong Kong films. Wilson plays a would-be train robber who thinks he’s the star of a dime novel. Screenwriters Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, along with director Tom Dey, were smart enough to play much of the danger seriously – which keeps the comedy from getting too silly.

One could argue that Shanghai Knights does get too silly, but it works. The plot brings our heroes to England, where Chan must find and save his sister (Fann Wong). What makes this film a little bit better? The fights, for one. Whether they’re serious or funny, they have a sense of reality that Noon’s fights lack – thanks partly from the menace of Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen as a major bad guy. When not fighting, the film jokes about everything British, such as bad teeth, bad food (“spotted dick”), and Beefeater guards.

The filmmakers didn’t worry about anachronisms, and neither should you. The soundtrack is filled with songs from the British invasion of the 1960s and ’70s. Actual historical figures of the era have the wrong career or are not yet born. The movie’s silliness helps.

The great chemistry between Chan and Wilson makes both films work. Chan’s character, Chon Wang (Wilson pronounces it John Wayne) is serious, often angry, means what he says, and fights with his fists. Wilson’s Roy O’Bannon never stops talking, lies constantly, especially when there’s a good-looking woman nearby. He’s a lousy shot and doesn’t know it. But he arrives when he’s needed (usually).

The screenwriters clearly have a love for classic cinema; a western villain is named Van Cleef; an English villain is named Rathbone.

If you’re looking for escapist entertainment, these two are worth watching.