The best thing to be said about Shanghai Knights is that it gives Jackie Chan a chance to dance. In the guise of one of his signature fight scenes using any implement in sight, he translates Gene Kelly’s famous rainy-night number from Singin’ in the Rain to martial arts. Back again as Chon Chon, he happens upon a street vendor’s stash of umbrellas, which he uses to outwit and outstep a throng of thugs. It’s a lovely number, as Chan hooks and spins his adversary-partners, flips and floats himself, to create a brief moment of balletic peace in a storm of noisy tedium.
These thugs are, of course, chasing Chon Wang for a reason, though it hardly matters what. The point of a Jackie Chan movie is to show him in motion, graceful, spastic, hilarious, innovative. The business with the umbrellas emphasizes Chan’s likeness to dancers generally, and pays proper homage to Kelly in particular. Chan’s movies are built like musicals: you put up with the corny plot and worse dialogue in order to get to the action-stunt-dance scenes, to marvel at their athletic, poetic brilliance.
And so: this time, Chon Wang is in London, having reunited with his buddy from Shanghai Noon, Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson), in order to track the assassin of Chon’s father (Kim S. Chan). For added nonsense, the killer, the slick-haired British Lord Rathbone (sneery Aiden Gillen, his character apparently named for the British actor Basil), has also stolen China’s Imperial Seal for a fellow villain, Wu Yip (Donnie Yen), who in turn, promises to murder the ten who precede Rathbone in the line to become King of England. His plan is simple, in the extreme: as the royals sit Thames-side, enraptured by a fireworks display arranged for the Queen’s Jubilee, Wu Yip will float by on a boat, in order to mow them all down at once with a spanky-new machine gun.
The gun is only one of several references to changing historical times (the Maxim was invented in 1885). Indeed, screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar devote considerable energy to making clever hay of contemporary (1887ish) inventions and ideas. Others include Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum (a touring exhibition that settled in London in 1835, and was well established by the ’80s); young Charlie Chaplin (actually not born until 1889, but appearing here as a smart-ass street urchin befriended by the buddies, and ably played by Aaron Johnson); Jack the Ripper (rampaging Whitechapel in 1888); a Kama Sutra book in the villain’s library (the Anangaranga was translated into English by Sir Richard Burton and F. F. Arthbuthnot in 1885); and a policeman named Artie Doyle (Tom Fisher) who aspires to write stories about a detective with uncanny intuitive abilities (the real Doyle published the first Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, in 1887).
Such allusions are not only fun to spot; they also helpfully distract from Shanghai Knights‘ feeble plot. The premise is Chon and Roy’s doubled fish-out-of-water-ness, in terms of nationality and race (in Chon’s case), and in terms of class: they’re infiltrating the enclaves of the rich and mighty. As is usual in the genre, the buddies are delineated in broad strokes: Chon is more earnest and better behaved; Roy is more sarcastic, though also savvier when it comes to reading the snooty-class enemy. Obviously, Chon has a personal stake in avenging his father’s murder, and Roy commits to this stake because otherwise, there would be no film.
Both their interests are boosted when it turns out that Chon has a feisty sister (who knew!?). Chon Lin (Fann Wong) arrives in London, mad at the Westernized Chon for abandoning his heritage, duty, and longstanding familial association with the Imperial Seal. Also committed to avenging their father’s murder, she’s quite the fancy fighter herself, with martial arts skills that are faster and more wire-worky than Chan’s own (though he also submits to wires and a couple of stunt double moments, too). Her violent proficiency makes Lin less of a buddy film prop than her predecessor in the first film, Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) (whose absence is noted here in a single line: she’s married, in San Francisco).
Lin is a charismatic, pleasantly willful girl… and then she meets Roy, who inexplicably wins her over on first sight. Now Chon has to worry about his sister’s honor as well as his father’s. Roy, being Chon’s ostensible opposite, is of course less interested in “honor,” his or anyone else’s (the film repeatedly refers to his womanizing). His interest in Lin turns “decent,” however, and is of a piece with his generally happy ignorance of the racism (and enslavement of the Chinese) that characterized the Old West.
In line with this selective history is Roy’s less “progressive” role as adorably boorish American tourist, disparaging all things British, as in, “This country blows!” His repeated condemnation of wussy English culture is unsurprising (he harasses the Queen’s Guard, makes fun of British costumes, and describes with gusto the colonialists’ defeat at the hands of spunky “rebels.” But, for his macho Yankee posturing, he’s got that homoerotic charge (the “chemistry”) with Chon, here elaborated in several scenes, including a boys-reuniting by way of pillow- fighting with a room full of female prostitutes. Here the boys end up as the only carousers who are visibly naked. Busted by Lin, they stand stunned, feathers floating all about them.
Shanghai Knights‘ self-conscious use of the buddy genre’s well known predilection for homoerotic/homophobic patterns is cute. It’s also unoriginal. The boys bond, they fight, they bond, they fight, and the girl comes between them only to underline their heterosexual status. Still, the set-piece climax for all this boy-boy tension is rather, um, pointed: after a series of stunts and fight scenes — where each of the three heroes confronts his or her own opponent — Chon and Roy end up astride Big Ben’s minute hand, pressed up against one another, dangling dangerously.