Be the Bullet
Given the ongoing fascination with the mythology of the American Cowboy, it is no surprise that Jackie Chan has made a Western, only that he didn’t do it sooner. And what a Western it is, replete with cowboys and Indians, outlaws, lost gold, and unbridled action. But this Western has another element comedy. It makes the most of Chan’s talents, a martial artist who infuses all of his films with charm and good humor.
In this buddy film, set in the 1881, Chan plays Chon Wang, an incompetent Imperial Guard for the royal family in China’s Forbidden City, who secretly admires Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu). When she is kidnapped and taken to America, Wang begs to be included with the other Guards being sent to pay her ransom and bring her home. Wang is allowed to go, not as a warrior, but more like an assistant to the Guards. The rescue party makes it way to Carson City, Nevada, where Pei Pei has been delivered to the evil Lo Fong (Roger Yuan), an ex-Imperial Guard with a grudge. Chan, soon separated from his countrymen, teams up with bumbling outlaw Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson). O’Bannon is more interested in the gold for Princess Pei Pei’s ransom, but as the genre dictates, the inept duo manage to become partners.
While the film takes place in the Old West, it’s hardly serious about Western generic conventions (don’t expect Unforgiven), but neither is it an over-the-top parody like Wild Wild West. It’s more like a combination of Blazing Saddles and the David Carradine TV series Kung Fu, revisionist but in a wholly nonthreatening manner. Shanghai Noon includes all the traditional Western elements, but pokes fun at them: Chon Wang has a trusty steed, but one who drinks whiskey and seeing a horse pick up a bottle and guzzle it, is funny in a Mel Brooksy way, as is watching that same overly devoted horse clambering after Wang into a saloon. Wang’s sidekick, Roy, isn’t a very good crook or very trustworthy. Roy would rather spend his time during heists charming the ladies. In the first robbery scene, one of O’Bannon’s gang members takes jewelry from a young woman. O’Bannon insists it be returned, saying, “We don’t steal from ladies,” as he fawns over her and asks politely whether this is her “first robbery.” Later, when he and Wang are in jail, O’Bannon hears out Wang’s plan to escape (“I’ll pretend I’m sick and distract the guard…”), then observes, “The sick prisoner routine? Does that still work in China? Because it’s been done to death here.”
While O’Bannon imagines China might be backwards, Shanghai Noon doesn’t shy away from the historical fact that U.S. whites were barbarically using Chinese slave laborers to build that great emblem of Westward Expansion and Progress, the railroad. And both O’Bannon and Wang have to deal with white folks’ racism against the Chinese before they can become friends. For example, Wang is hurt and righteously angered when he overhears O’Bannon agreeing with a racist remark and so, he temporarily breaks up the team. Of course they make up: Wang’s long que, a sign of his difference in the States, is put to good use humorously as a weapon and seriously as a symbol of Wang’s Chinese identity. It’s crucial that the que not be cut off, and Wang goes to great lengths to protect it (for without it, he cannot return to China). It’s a sign of O’Bannon’s growing respect for Wang when comes to accept its importance, and a sign of the movie’s ideological leanings that, by the end, Wang thinks better of going back to China, wanting instead to remain in the land of the “free,” conveniently recognizing the oppression he suffers as a Guard and forgetting the non-freedoms he’s encountered in the U.S.
En route to Wang’s revelation, the movie takes most every opportunity to make fun of Western cliches (not least being the fact that Chan’s character is called Chon Wang, which, in certain pronunciations sounds a lot like the name of another famous cowboy). Still, and despite my affection for Jackie Chan, I was frankly worried that the film would be less than intelligent in its depiction of Native Americans after all, Hollywood has a terrible record on the subject. Shanghai Noon combines Chan’s engaging naivete and some broad humor, much of it from the Native people’s perspective. When first on his own in the wilderness, Wang feels compelled to protect a young Indian boy whom he discovers being chased by a group from another tribe. A classic Chan fight scene results with the imaginative use of tomahawks and fast-motion footage, with requisite slow motion shots to enhance tension and showcase Chan’s trademark resourcefulness. It is a bit odd that the Native Americans seem to know martial arts, but.. well, Jackie Chan needs some kicking and chopping adversaries.
Later, as he’s being feted by the tribe for saving the child, Wang tries to communicate with his new friends, with no success. They talk amongst themselves, making fun of Wang’s attempts, “Now he is saying it slower like that will help!” The whole cross-cultural business gets a bit uncomfortable when, as reward for his heroism, a doped-out-on-peace-pipe-smoke Wang is wed to a beautiful young tribe member, Falling Leaves (Brandon Merrill). But again, humor diffuses what might be a disastrous situation. Once the wedding is consummated, a friend comforts the bride’s father by announcing, “It could have been worse. He could be a white guy.”
Wang still smitten by the princess tries to leave his new wife behind, but she trails after him secretly, even saving him unexpectedly several times during the course of his adventures. That Falling Leaves is so skilled and self-sufficient adept with weapons and able to outwit any opponent who comes her way (or rather, Wang’s way) makes her into yet another instance of the film’s good intentions, to turn Western movie conventions on their head, as Indian maiden comes to the rescue, instead of the Calvary. Of course, that Wang and O’Bannon need rescuing also says something about the film’s revisionist-inclined gender-coding. Wang and O’Bannon’s friendship develops to the point where, weary from their many travels, they take time out for long bubble bath while hiding out in a brothel. They begin to play a drinking game while bathing and whoa! end up in the same tub together. Suffice to say that, though they plainly maintain their heterosexual interests, this duo isn’t quite so phobic about their intimate moments as other movie buddies tend to be.
The anachronisms in the film are also enjoyable, juxtaposing historical detail, as seen in the costumes, with modern characterizations and language rhythms. O’Bannon aspires to be a “real” outlaw but often falls back on spouting New Agey therapy-speak, whether calming his partner (“Just relax, you look sort of rigid there”) or himself, as when he’s about to duel with an expert (the predictably bad Marshall with the black hat, played by Xander Berkeley), and tries to psych himself up: “Be positive be the bullet.”
Indeed, Owen Wilson is the real surprise here. He plays the light-hearted crook to perfection and endears himself to audience. Previously, he has appeared in Bottle Rocket, The Haunting, Anaconda, and last year’s little-seen but superb The Minus Man. He co-wrote Bottle Rocket with director Wes Anderson and he was also associate producer for As Good As it Gets. It’s clear that he has wide-ranging comic talents; with luck, Shanghai Noon will make him a star.