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Enter the Drag

Jackie Chan goes way out West, but not far enough

Do not judge Shanghai Noon by its trailer, which serves as the very antithesis of advertising: It begs you to stay far away from any theater in which this film is screening. Laden with dreary sight gags (a horse that stays by sitting ... just like a dog) and woeful puns ("Your name is John Wayne?" Owen Wilson asks Jackie Chan. "That's a terrible cowboy name"), the trailer lacks only Leslie Nielsen as a punch line. Not that it does the film an injustice; indeed, Shanghai Noon is a trifle at best, a lightweight, wink-wink amalgam of myriad other films, some of which have even starred Chan and Wilson, but the trailer looks more like a commercial for a summer replacement series on ABC. It lacks only a laugh track -- oh, yes, and laughs.

Shanghai Noon is hardly as enervating as its trailer would lead you to believe, but not by much. It will be forgotten moments after the outtakes montage that plays beneath the end credits, replaced by musty memories of films such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Frisco Kid, Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns, even Wilson's own Bottle Rocket, which he co-wrote and starred in. Shanghai Noon is like the mobster in the witness-relocation program: It has no identity of its own. Such, of course, are the complaints that can be made about any Jackie Chan movie made for and released in the States. They're pale imitations of his best films (Police Story, Project A) or imitations of someone else's best films (1991's Operation Condor was a nifty redo of Raiders of the Lost Ark), built upon a foundation of golly-whiz stunts Chan has been doing since his audience was still learning to crawl. Shanghai Noon, a compendium of borrowed kicks and pilfered plots, is no different.

To sum up this film's plot is to recount no less than a dozen other Jackie Chan films, none more so than 1998's Rush Hour; it's likely Shanghai Noon was written in the same Word document, though "written" is perhaps too strong a word when "cut and paste" will do. Once more, with feeling, Chan must travel from China to the United States to rescue a kidnapped female, and he must do so with the reluctant assistance of a wise-ass American. The variations on the theme -- in this go-around, the girl is a princess (Ally McBeal's Lucy Liu), and his partner is a white cowboy instead of a black cop -- are nearly beside the point. An urban setting, the Far East, or the Wild, Wild West -- locale (and language, for that matter) is rendered moot when Chan unpacks his bags and spoils for a fight.

Chan's character, an imperial guard named Chon Wang, leaves the Forbidden City and arrives in the dusty armpit of Nevada in search of the purloined Princess Pei Pei (Liu, reduced to the background almost immediately); he stumbles across a train robbery being conducted by Roy O'Bannon (Wilson) and his ragtag gang of miscreants and misfits. Roy is a likeable rogue, refusing to steal from pretty women; the guy is a giant grin, all teeth and bullshit. But the robbery goes awry (Roy is an awful crook) and Roy and Chon wind up deserted in the desert; Roy, quite literally, is up to his neck in the middle of nowhere. It's a nifty way of getting him out of the movie for a long stretch, leaving Chon free to roam the reservation, where he picks up a peace pipe and, after a stoned one-night fling, gets hitched to a character billed only as Indian Wife (Brandon Merrill), who appears and reappears throughout the film like a screenwriter's afterthought.

Roy and Chon meet up again in a bar fight. They discover the princess, working on the railroad, during the third hour (or thereabouts -- maybe it just seems like it). For a film that presents itself as being a brisk good time, it bogs down in cinematic quicksand. A montage (set to inexplicable modern-day music by the likes of ZZ Top and Aerosmith) gives way to a fight scene gives way to a montage gives way to a fight ... and on and on, until the repetition grows numbing. Worse, director Tom Dey and his screenwriters (Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, previously responsible for the arid Lethal Weapon 4) can't decide if they've made a parody or a tribute, so they split the difference, which amounts to a tepid, smug rip-off. It has neither the guts to play as all-out farce, nor the smarts for paying homage; imagine the horrific spawn created by breeding Blazing Saddles with Silverado.

By all rights this film belongs to Wilson, and not just because he's already written some of it. The actor, who looks like a cross between a young Dennis Hopper and a prewreck Montgomery Clift, has had a most inexplicable career post-Bottle Rocket. He's not a star; he's a statistic, winding up beaten (The Cable Guy) or dead (Armageddon, Anaconda, The Haunting) in most of the films in which he's appeared. Save for The Minus Man, a lugubrious antithriller in which he plays a drifter who kills with kindness (he offers his victims a tasty, nonviolent poison), he's appeared in films so far beneath him he needs a parachute to reach the set.

Brother and Bottle Rocket costar Luke has fared no better, but his bad luck can be blamed on his good looks: Luke, hiding behind blank brown eyes, is easy to underestimate. Owen, on the other hand, possesses a far deeper, darker talent; his aw-dude exterior hints at a stormy interior, a sort of calm brutality within. Hampton Fancher, The Minus Man's writer-director, exploited it; in that film Wilson exudes a cool seethe, until even his shrugs seem to contain a hidden cruelty. Tom Dey, a first-time director more concerned with stunts and speech coaches, has little interest in bothersome things such as characterization and nuance.

Shanghai Noon's Roy bears more than a passing resemblance to Bottle Rocket's Dignan: Both men dream of being outlaws, when in truth they can't even load a gun. Roy is such a mess even the villainous Marshall Van Cleef (Xander Berkeley) can't believe he's chasing this guy. "How do you survive out here?" wonders Van Cleef, whose name pays homage to Leone heavy Lee Van Cleef. Roy is delighted when he spots his name and picture on a most-wanted poster, though he's disappointed to find Chon is worth more and has a nifty nickname, Shanghai Kid, to boot. Like Dignan Roy wants to be immortal; he echoes a line from Bottle Rocket when he insists Chon go ahead, leaving him to face off against his old gang. "They can't touch me," he drawls, rewriting the touching, funny climax from Bottle Rocket. Roy imagines himself some figure in a history book; the punch line, revealed in the film's final scene, is that he is. Wilson's laconic energy keeps the film moving; he's breezy enough to carry this tissue paper till the very end.

Chan, on the other hand, is the closer who's lost five miles an hour off his fastball; it's not enough to render him expendable, but it's just enough to make him vulnerable. The 46-year-old looks as though he's moving in slow motion -- which is even played for gags in one scene where he throws tomahawks at two Native-American baddies, who snatch them from the wind and hurl them right back. And in the post-Matrix era, his feats seem somehow tame, even cute -- holdovers from a simpler time, when a man didn't need wires and stop-action, digitized tricks to prove his merit. What's dazzling about Jackie Chan is that he can still move at all.


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