I listed 2000's "Shanghai Noon" as the 10th worst film of that year. Now, three years later, a sequel has arrived. It has a new director, and the ballsy intention to follow up a picture that wasn't really a huge financial success (domestically speaking) in the first place. Can time, effort, and some fresh eyes redeem this obnoxious, unwanted installment in a franchise nobody is asking for?
When his father is killed by an evil English politician looking for a priceless family seal, Chon Wang (Jackie Chan) is forced to leave his comfy job as sheriff of Carson City, Nevada, to go to London in pursuit of the killers. On his way, Wang decides to pay his old buddy, perpetual liar and schemer Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson), a visit to request help, and the two are soon off to merry old England to investigate. When they arrive, the two cowboys learn that the ways of the English are quite different than they'd anticipated, and that Wang's sister, Lin (Fann Wong), has also arrived from China to help with the fight.
As with "Shanghai Noon, "Knights" (IMDb listing) is a film that one must be specifically in the mood to watch. It's a shameful, particularly unfunny film that is determined to wring every last drop of forced whimsy and cartoonish violence it can out of the thin premise. Thankfully, "Knights" doesn't have the singular punishing vision of director Tom Dey ("Showtime") to guide the proceedings. His replacement is David Dobkin, the filmmaker behind the sly and often gut-busting Vince Vaughn starrer "Clay Pigeons." Dobkin isn't the first director that comes to mind to helm a Jackie Chan slap-fest, but he does what he can within the strict comedy and action rules set up in "Shanghai Noon." If this lackluster film can claim anything as a positive, it is that, at the very least, it looks better. Courtesy of cinematographer Adrian Biddle ("The World Is Not Enough"), who knows a thing or two about slick widescreen photography, "Knights" has a lush feel about it, almost as if each frame was ripped out of a graphic novel. The golds, reds, and blacks are delicious, and provide nice eye candy when the rest of the film just isn't all that interesting.
All the colors in the world couldn't help this script, though, which allows the silly ironic plotting and punishing Owen Wilson (who is so good with Wes Anderson and Ben Stiller, yet so atrocious without them) to return without mercy. The "Shanghai" just aren't funny, as much as the production seems to think they are. "Knights" provides the same historical wackiness as "Noon" so smugly did, this time having Roy and Wang meet a young Charlie Chaplin, accidentally slam into Stonehenge, complain that there is no future in automobiles, and helping Sir Arthur Conan Doyle come up with the Sherlock Holmes character. This type of humor is just too wacky for my tastes, and it's made even worse by the film's insistence on nudging you vigorously to laugh when the characters come into contact with something historical. Another frustrating element is the film's constant deployment of modern touches for a film set in 1887. While this type of comedy is essentially the point of the two "Shanghai" films, I can only stomach so much before The Who's "Magic Bus" begins playing on the soundtrack, and Roy and Wang start making "Midnight Cowboy" and "Singin' In The Rain" references. That I draw the line on.
Of course, all this is just a pie crust to the real reason we are here: To see Jackie Chan fight. The action sequences of "Knights" are a little fiercer in nature and more fanciful in design than they were in "Noon." The carefree and slapsticky Chan choreography is still something of questionable merit, but it's presented here with more imagination and running time. As tiring as it is watching Chan, Dobkin does deliver a nifty climax, which has Chan fighting another Chinese assassin (the legendary Donnie Yen, "Iron Monkey") aboard a boat, and Roy fighting for his life on the hands of Big Ben during a celebratory fireworks display for the Queen of England. The picture really comes alive at this late juncture, and it infuriated me that so many earlier sections of the film were wasted on flatlining comedy and fights that veered too far into silliness.
This sequel is an improvement, no matter how slight. I just hope this upward trajectory can continue if they decide to make a "Shanghai Mourning," or something ridiculous like that.
Filmfodder Grade: D