Shanghai Knights is grand. It’s inoffensive, it’s entertaining, it efficiently accomplishes a lot of what it sets out to do. It’s not exceptional, it’s not innovative, and it won’t stay with you too long after watching it, but it isn’t entirely without its charm. It’s Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan doing the sort of thing that they’ve become quite comfortable at doing. Neither performer, nor the film itself, is ever that far outside their comfort zone, but it’s never embarrassing or awkward.
To be fair, I thought that Shanghai Noon did a rather decent job of providing a nice gimmicky Jackie Chan vehicle. After all, so many of his modern English-language films adhere to the same formula, that at least the original had a bit of a novelty to it – “East meets Old West.” Shanghai Knights follows the same sort of formula, transitioning the action from the Old West to Victorian England. While it’s undoubtedly preferable to doing the same thing again, the premise seems like the kind of ground that has been covered before.
After all, the American perspective of British culture has always been a little myopic. That becomes especially obvious when setting the story in Victorian England. One can almost call the cultural references before they are made, if only because they’re the kind of Anglophilia that we’ve witness countless times before. “You’re driving on the wrong side of the road!” Roy yells at a stage coach on arriving in England.
The soundtrack is populated with any number of classic British songs, some of which work quite well, while others feel a bit more awkward. One is the Loneliest Number is one of the most clichéd songs in popular culture, but only because it works. However, a string quartet version of Paint It Black feels a bit more awkwardly inserted into the film. It just feels like a fairly simplistic and one-dimensional take on British popular culture.
And of course, the movie is populated with any number of recognisable names dropped into the film. It seems like most of the supporting characters our plucky leads interact with turn out to be famous individuals. Naturally, our heroes encounter Jack the Ripper prowling the streets of London, perhaps explaining why the serial killer suddenly stopped killing. Even the stereotypical street urchin ends up having an easily-recognisable name for the audience at home.
Of course, more than just British cultural references, Shanghai Knights also builds off any number of more iconic pop culture moments and motifs, integrating them into its shared narrative. Rather overtly, there’s a short sequence involving a rotating fireplace that seems to borrow heavily from a familiar John Williams’ score. One sequence sees Jackie Chan pulling off a stunt inspired by (and the soundtrack from) Singin’ in the Rain. Less obvious, the finalé even features a sequence – a flag-ripping trip down the side of a building- that seems to have been borrowed from Tomorrow Never Dies.
None of this is explicitly or inherently bad, it just gives you an idea of what to expect. On its own terms, as a collection of mish-mashed pop cultural moments tied together by a flimsy narrative. It’s like blockbuster comfort food, and there’s a place for that. Certainly it’s actually handled quite well by all involved, with Owen Wilson having honed his “likeable douchebag”persona and Jackie Chan having a wonderful knack for physical slapstick.
Indeed, Jackie Chan’s stuntwork is quite charming here, presenting his fight sequences as something of an homage to classical Hollywood slapstick. One sequence sees the martial artist defeating and tying up several Chicago police officers with their own batons, and there’s a nice sequence later on involving the Fleet Street Gang and some coat-switcheroo. It is wonderful to watch, and there’s a great deal of creativity in those short bursts of action featuring Chan. If only the rest of the film had that sort of energy.
It is interesting to see Aidan Gillen cast as the film’s villain. In one of the movie’s countless references to British popular culture, his sinister British statesman is named “Rathbone”, in homage to the actor famous for playing Sherlock Holmes. Gillen is always a joy to watch, and he makes an effective cardboard villain, offering a stately performance. He’s understated, speaking in soft hisses rather than words. The actor’s work here seems decidedly classy, harking back to old matinee performers in cheesy B-movies, which is exactly what this is – right down to the weird hair and high collars.
Shanghai Knights is solidly entertaining, if not exceptional on its own terms.
Filed under: Non-Review Reviews Tagged: | Aidan Gillen, China, film, Movie, non-review review, Owen Wilson, review, Shadow Dancer, Shanghai, shanghai knights, shanghai noon, Shopping, Stagecoach, Troubles