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SHANGHAI NOON

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Lucy Liu
Director:  Tom Dey
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1
Video:  Widescreen 2.35:1 Anamorphic Transfer
Studio:  Touchstone Home Video
Features:  See Review
Length:  110 Minutes
Release Date:  October 10, 2000

Film ***

Shanghai Noon is an effervescent western comedy, one that deliberately winks at the audience to let them know that it’s in on its own joke.  It works largely because of this sense of self-deflation, but also because of the amazing physicality of Jackie Chan and the dry, comic delivery of Owen Wilson.

I’ve been a Jackie Chan fan forever, and though he may be just a beat slower now at age 46 than he was in his prime, he’s still at least twice as fast as any action hero manufactured by Hollywood.  Chan built his reputation by doing his own stunts and conceiving some of the most outrageous, intricate and amazingly crafted fight and action sequences the cinema has ever seen.  When he does an American film like this one, he may lose the opportunity to do a few stunts here and there, but the action is the same.

Chan plays Chon Wang (say it out loud), an Imperial guard from China who tags along with his uncle and rescue team as a baggage carrier on their way to the American frontier.  The reason?  The princess Pei Pei (Liu), who thought she was simply escaping a forced marriage, ended up being kidnapped by a former guard turned traitor who now runs a veritable Asian slave trade in the states. 

Their plans are altered, however, when a clumsy gang of train robbers led by Roy O’Bannon (Wilson) attempts a heist on their train.  One of Roy’s gang members turns traitor, killing Chon’s uncle and leaving Roy to die.  Chon finds it is up to him to rescue the princess, but soon finds himself reluctantly teamed with Roy, who convinces him that he needs his help to survive in the west.  Meanwhile, Roy secretly has his eye on the 100,000 gold pieces the Chinese had brought with them to ransom Pei Pei.

The teaming of these two unlikely partners creates some of the film’s best comedy.  Like in Rush Hour, Chan plays the man of action and little words, while his American partner, in this case Wilson, is the slick smooth talker with the motor mouth.  Roy teaches Chon how to dress, walk, and talk like a cowboy.  Well, sort of.   And, of course, before it’s all over, Chon will have taught the renegade Roy much about honor and duty.  After kicking a great deal of butt first, naturally.

As in most of Chan’s films, the plot is a thinly drawn guideline that propels the movie from point A to point B and beyond, and serves up excuses for action and mayhem along the way.  But there is a script improvement here, in allowing for verbal comedy to mix in with the slapstick.  This is the element Owen Wilson brings to the mix, and as a result, the chemistry between the two leads is winning.  And sure, Jackie fights, but he also has his other comic moments, like when he tries to get help from some Indians.  “Where is Carson City?” he enunciates carefully and deliberately.  The Indians remark (with subtitles), “He’s saying it slower now.  Like that makes a difference.”

I found a lot in this movie that seemed to allude to earlier Chan films.  An early fight with a spear was reminiscent of the climax of Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin.  The way he leaps a tree, only to have it snap back and take out an opponent reminded me of a stunt that was planned but never filmed for First Strike.  There’s even a bubble gag straight from Drunken Master II (currently in theatres as The Legend of Drunken Master).  And, an early scene of Roy using his sketches to go over the crime plans with his gang reminded me of what Owen Wilson had done in Bottle Rocket.  Am I suggesting a lack of originality at play?  Not at all.  These moments, like the film as a whole, seem to be just another wink and nudge to let the audience have a little more fun with it.

I would have liked more action from Jackie…that is my only real complaint.  He has a few spectacular scenes, and to watch him perform is to marvel at the same kind of artistry Fred Astaire showed when he danced.  But this film, in trying to strike a balance between the comedy and the action, tipped the scales a little too far in favor of the comedy.  Which is fine…the film offers plenty of laughs…but you tend to go into a Jackie Chan movie with some expectations, and this picture, though entertaining in its own way, doesn’t meet all of them.

Still, as a long time fan, I’m happy to see Jackie finally earning the recognition he deserves in this country; the recognition he’s enjoyed universally as the world’s greatest and most popular action star.  America will never truly know what she’s missed by waiting until the man was in his forties to embrace him as a star…the fact that older Chan films like Drunken Master are earning theatrical releases today is proof of that…but I’m still betting that Jackie has plenty of good years and films in him, and as long as movies like Shanghai Noon win the hearts of new fans and critics alike, we can at least say “better late than never”.

Video ****

This anamorphic transfer is stellar, and ranks among the best I’ve seen from the Disney companies!  For starters, the west is beautifully photographed, and these images render gorgeously on disc.  The skies are deep blue, the grass is green and detailed almost to the individual blades, and everything from start to finish is sharp and crystal clear, with the detail reaching back into even the deep focused shots.   I noticed no evidence of grain, haze, shimmer or any other form of transfer problems, and the print itself looked pretty immaculate.  What’s amusing is that when I saw this film theatrically, I wondered why it had such a dark look to it.  The answer was that it didn’t…this disc is proof of that.  This is actually a bright, sunny movie, and it looks better on disc than it did on the big screen.  Outstanding!

Audio ****

The 5.1 soundtrack is every bit the equal to the video in terms of quality.  Right from the start, the music swells and relaxes with strong percussion, and the score opens up the full listening stage from front to back, enveloping the listener.  The full stage stays open from start to finish, too.  There is always sound coming from the rear channels, as well as excellent balance level and flow as the sound moves from front to rear channels.  Dialogue is clear throughout, and the front channels operate to create a full range for it, utilized the three speakers in a terrific mix.  In other words, it’s not just the action that will remind you that you have 5.1 sound!

Features ****

Again, Disney earns high marks, with one of their most impressive feature packages.  The highlight is a commentary track with Chan, Wilson and director Tom Dey, which was recorded separately but edited together seamlessly, and for a nice audio touch, Chan’s voice comes from the center speaker, while Dey and Wilson are channeled left and right, respectively.  I’ve always wanted a Jackie Chan commentary, and listening to these three guys was both informative and entertaining…a real treat.  Then there are seven deleted scenes, a good behind-the-scenes featurette, a couple of nicely done interactive games with full video, an “Action Overlooked” short film about the making of the movie’s most exciting sequences, and a music video by Uncle Kracker.  A terrific package!

Summary:

If Shanghai Noon as a film is a real crowd pleaser, as a DVD it’s even more so.  This is easily one of Disney’s best overall offerings in terms of quality and extras—you couldn’t really ask for better!