Undignified Knights

There's no pow in Jackie Chan's latest flick.

After watching this film in a dank theater, I woke my date up, put my note pad in my pocket and wondered how things could have gone so wrong.

With the charming Owen Wilson and the kinetic Jackie Chan in the lead roles of Shanghai Knights, its makers had to work hard to make a bad picture.

Shanghai Knights seems like it was written by an automated script-writing machine with the dials set for "random occurrences" and "witless dialogue." Why would they even put such settings on one of those machines?

The film begins with the hilariously named Chon Wang (pronounced "John Wayne" by the gringo white folks) working as a sheriff in 1887 Nevada. He gets a message from his preternaturally beautiful sister that his disapproving father has been killed by that most evil of peoples, an English man.

Thus, he must set off to the heart of darkness, London, a land where people are so decadent and amoral that they call trucks "lorries."

But first, he stops off in New York City to pick up his friend Roy O'Bannon, who is played by the irrepressible Owen Wilson. I imagine that Owen Wilson could get laughs reading the Quran out loud. In fact, Wilson is so generally charming that he made I-Spy into an amusing movie.

So the fact that almost nothing he says or does in Shanghai Knights is even as funny as John Ashcroft's assiduous pursuit of the death penalty makes me wonder what sort of effort went into destroying this film.

Anyway, O'Bannon and Chon hop on a steamer and set off in pursuit of Chon's dad's killer, one Lord Rathbone.

Of course, I was worried that when they got to London, the movie would go all high-brow and "Masterpiece Theater" on me. I think that's what killed the Jackie Chan/Meryl Streep movie that came out a few years ago, Supercop vs. Silkwood.

Luckily, the producers of Shanghai Knights do not fall prey to this trap, and manage to keep things childishly low-brow. As the English would say to that: Huzzah!

What follows after they get to London, though, is an almost random assortment of scenes with little tying them together. The movie could easily have been re-cut with the scenes re-arranged in almost any order, so long as they left the obvious climax at the end.

Chon and O'Bannon basically just cavort with an assortment of English stereotypes and lame pop-culture references. They meet a little tramp named Charlie Chaplin, a detective named Arthur Conan Doyle and a queen named Victoria. They see bad dentistry and eat horrid food. They have a spot of tea.

While Chon and O'Bannon engage in vaguely homoerotic buddy-movie bonding (including the obligatory bondage sequence and naked pillow fight), Chon's sister, Lin, has figured out how to find the killer.

Lin is played by Fann Wong, who is so much prettier than this movie is interesting that the producers would have done better to just leave a still shot of her on the screen for 110 minutes. Sadly, they lacked that kind of creative forethought, so they just used her to advance the plot and as a romantic interest for the sexually incontinent O'Bannon.

Once the basic set-up is laid out, the story lurches towards its inevitable conclusion with all the grace and subtlety of a Bill Clinton pick-up line. The directors pull out all the stops on the final action sequence, with nothing of note prior to it, showing so little faith in their material that they include in one scene a machine gun, four kung-fu battles, a complete fireworks display and the destruction of two of England's national treasures. The only thing missing was a rapping kangaroo.

If I had to think of something nice to say about Shanghai Knights (and my mother always said, "If you don't have anything nice to say, become a film critic"), I would note that the cinematography is not incompetent. It's not gorgeous or anything, but it is sort of interesting that in the last 15 years or so, one very rarely sees a big-budget movie that isn't reasonably well shot. I realize this has little to do with the picture at hand, but again, I'm trying to say something nice.

I hear that Jackie Chan is considering retiring shortly, so I hope this piece of regurgitant isn't his swan song, as he deserves better. One can really see his charm in the obligatory out-takes sequence that runs at the end of the film, where it becomes clear that the cast and crew had far more fun making this movie than the audience had watching it. Perhaps if they had simply made it into a two-hour long blooper reel, this project could have been saved, but as it stands, it's only slightly more entertaining--and a good bit more annoying--than sitting in a dark theater with nothing on the screen at all.

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