Late in "Shanghai Knights," the lazy and resolutely witless follow-up to the comic western "Shanghai Noon," the two lead characters get into an argument about which guy is the sidekick. Owen Wilson, who plays a 19th century dude named Roy O'Bannon, insists that his partner in absurdity, Chon Wang, is his sidekick. Wang, a Chinese immigrant and kung fu master played by Jackie Chan, counters that O'Bannon is his accessory. The joke, of course, as well as the appeal of the pair's first movie, is that neither guy rates first billing.
In the post-John Wayne universe, nothing seems sillier than the upright, uptight lone ranger, which helps explain why the incongruous partnership of Chan and Wilson worked as well as it did in "Shanghai Noon." It wasn't only that there was something intrinsically amusing in the idea of the Hong Kong superstar running amok in the Old West with a guy who sounded as if he should be hanging out in a surf shop; there was something mildly resonant about the conceit as well. The Chinese warrior and the dingbat bank robber weren't just an odd couple; they were, by virtue of their differences and their frontier follies, a deeply American odd couple.
Now, though, they're just a couple of goofballs. "Shanghai Knights" opens in the Forbidden City, or at least its digital facsimile, shortly before Wang's father and sister, Chon Lin (Fann Wong), fail to stop an attack launched by an English lord, Rathbone (Aidan Gillen, sliding neatly into the sadistic fop role mostly recently the preserve of Gary Oldman). The excuse for the attack is feeble (something to do with Rathbone's lowly place on the royal chain of command and inheritance) and essentially irrelevant, since the assault is merely an excuse to get the two stars in gear and, for some reason, over to London. That's too bad not only because the American West of the 1880s is too rich a location to abandon (the western is perennially ripe for rediscovery), but also because it gave the odd couple context.
Once in London and out of context, Wang and O'Bannon pursue Rathbone with the aid of Wang's sister and some stock characters, notably a bumbling Scotland Yard detective and one of those intolerably cute urchins who makes you long for the punishing ways of Fagin. Fearless in their pursuit of cliché, writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who also wrote "Shanghai Noon," tramp through London with the daring of tourists clutching their Fodor's. In one scene, O'Bannon makes fun of a Buckingham Palace guard; in another, the duo visits Madame Tussaud's for a strained interlude that pales alongside the comic waxworks of "Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." More embarrassing still are director David Dobkin's stabs at Austin Powers-style frivolity that find "Winchester Cathedral" cued on the soundtrack and O'Bannon and Wang frolicking in slo-mo with a roomful of trollops. The first film may not have been all that funnier, but by keeping a tighter rein on both the action and the stars, director Tom Dey managed to make the whole thing pop more brightly.
None of this would matter if the fight scenes thrilled. Back in the 1980s and '90s, when Chan was risking his life for our love by hanging off buildings and hot-air balloons, the Hong Kong superstar seemed invincible. In films like "Police Story," "Armour of God" and even a late-model whimsy like "Rumble in the Bronx," the star attraction was Chan's physicality, which worked a glorious counterpoint to his comically ductile physiognomy. Like Gene Kelly or Michael Jordan, he made it look easy. Chan turns 49 this April, however, and though he still looks as if some Renaissance master chiseled him out of marble, at least from the neck down, he has increasingly come to rely on clever props, stuntmen and ingratiating shtick to deflect attention from his slowing body.
There are a few diverting fight scenes in "Shanghai Knights," but too often the fights, choreographed by Chan, feel specifically calculated to win the affections of the American audience. One street skirmish that directly quotes Kelly's title number from "Singin' in the Rain" is overextended and predictable in its payoff but, worse yet, carries with it a whiff of desperation. Loving Jackie Chan has always been easy, which is why it would be nice if he could find better material in which to bask in his long-sought American stardom or, alternately, ease into bad movies as effortlessly as his co-star. With a zonked-out Zen vibe and a twangy singsong that suggests he only that minute laid aside his bong, Wilson isn't begging for our devotion. He's just inviting us to the nonstop party going on in his head.
MPAA rating: PG-13, for violence and sexual content.
Times guidelines: The violence is pretty clean, but the language is surprisingly dirty.
Jackie Chan ... Chon Wang
Owen Wilson ... Roy O'Bannon
Aaron Johnson ... Charlie
Thomas Fisher ... Artie Doyle
Aidan Gillen ... Rathbone
Touchstone Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment present a Birnbaum/Barber production, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director David Dobkin. Writers Alfred Gough, Miles Millar. Producers Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber, Jonathan Glickman. Director of photography Adrian Biddle. Production designer Allan Cameron. Editor Malcolm Campbell. Costume designer Anna Sheppard. Music Randy Edelman. Casting Donna Morong. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times