Published May 1, 2000
Shanghai Noon, directed by Tom Dey from a script by Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, is a spoof- Western in the manner of Blazing Saddles but with two main differences from Mel Brooks’s classic. One is that it is 26 years further away from the sort of conventions of the genre that Blazing Saddles was obviously sending up. The other, possibly related, is that it is not as funny. Indians who say “How” in greeting and call white people “kemosabe” wouldn’t have been funny in Mel Brooks’s day, but I think that Dey and his screenwriters think they are supposed to be funny today. Possibly audiences will agree with them, though it didn’t seem so to me. The conventions of the movie gun-fight are obviously not understood very well here either, which makes the film’s attempt to send them up rather a hit-and-miss affair.
Worst of all is the fact that the film has learned nothing from the disappointment of Rush Hour (1998) and has wasted the talents of the remarkable Jackie Chan in an exactly similar way. The presentation of this actor’s acrobatic style of fighting is not given the prominence it deserves and is all muddled up with slapstick and pratfalls. Even trick photography is used, which it used to be Mr. Chan’s proud boast never to have resorted to. As in Rush Hour, too, this obviously solo artist is made to fit a Hollywood-style buddy picture like a square peg in a round hole. The buddy in this case, a bumbling but lovable outlaw called Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson), is at least a genuine comic talent in his own right, and some of his comic bits would have been rather good if not unnaturally conjoined to the very different kind of comedy that Jackie Chan is good at. Moreover, they are often and almost fatally tinged with the kind of druggie, slacker humor that, I guess, you have to be high yourself in order to find funny.
The plot is quite as ridiculous as any of those that Mr. Chan used to make in his Hong Kong days. He plays Chon Wang ( “John Wayne? That’s a terrible name for a cowboy,” says Roy), a Chinese imperial guard who is sent to America to rescue a Chinese princess, played by Lucy Liu, who has been kidnapped by the sinister Fong (Roger Yuan) and is being held to ransom while hidden among a gang of Chinese coolie railroad workers. Her compassion for the workers and her desire to be a relatively free American rather than a cossetted Chinese princess (yeah, right) makes her extract from the obsequious Chon a promise to rescue her both from Fong and from those other imperial guards who have come to take her home again.
When Roy and his gang rob the train that the Chinese are travelling on the two buddies-to-be meet, fight, and almost succeed in killing each other, which as all movie-goers know is a very sound foundation for subsequent friendship in comedy-westerns. The rest of the plot, though more or less incomprehensible, doesn’t really matter except as it provides the occasion for Roy to joke and Jackie to fight. The best of the jokes come in the final shoot-out in a church between Roy, who is a terrible marksman, and the ruthless federal marshal who has been hunting him down. As Roy’s six-shooter riddles a plaster angel far above the marshal’s head he calls out, “I hit you?”
“No,” | says the marshal, “but you’re gettin’ real close.” No wonder he wonders, “How do you survive out here?”
But Roy, peering from behind a pillar in the church, still has a trick up his sleeve. “Maybe we should let bygones be bygones,” he suggests. “Call it a tie?”
In the Blazing Saddles tradition, here is also a lot of ethnic, therapeutic and political humor which is rather uneven. The fact that a hayseed thinks Indians are Jews does not seem to me to be quite uproarious, though the following dialogue, placed in the context of the Old West is perhaps worth a thin smile:
“I’m a no good outlaw.”
“No, you’re a good outlaw.”
“No I’m not. I’m a screw-up.”
“No, I’m a screw-up.”
We are supposed to find this funny because we know that cowboys — at least the movie cowboys that are part of the American folk-memory — never talked like this, never “shared” their vulnerable, sensitive sides with each other. But in the quarter century since Blazing Saddles this has become an old joke. Similarly, a line like: “The thing about your husband — and this is nothing against him, ’cause I really like him — he comes from a very male-dominated society,” would have been much more funny if its humor had been based on anything other than its incongruity, its contemporary sound, in a period setting. But that would be to redirect the humor at us, and the absurdities of our sexual politics, rather than long-unfashionable heroic myths of the American West. I’m afraid that we Americans take our fashions too seriously to put up with anything like that.