Rush Hour was a silly little action-comedy B-movie that blew the fuck up in 1998, and it was easy to get the sense, watching things play out, that Hollywood wasn’t quite sure how to deal with that level of unexpected success. The studios could make more Rush Hour movies, of course, which they absolutely did. They also had to accept the idea that Jackie Chan’s balletic slapstick mastery could translate just fine to an American audience, especially if you put him in a movie with other Americans. Which is how we got Shanghai Noon, a bald and obvious take on the Rush Hour blueprint that replaced contemporary L.A. with the Old West and Chris Tucker with a young, pre-Zoolander/Royal Tenenbaums Owen Wilson. In other words, it’s an upgrade over Rush Hour in pretty much every imaginable way.
Shanghai Noon isn’t a great movie because it pretty explicitly was not trying to be a great movie. You can tell they started with the terrible-pun title and went from there. It looks cheap, people make totally nonsensical decisions, and there are barely any big-name actors beyond Chan, Wilson, and a given-nothing-to-do Lucy Liu. (Shout out to Walton Goggins, hamming it up in the undercard and doing a broad-comedy version of the Southern-fried menace he’d master years later on Justified.) Director Tom Dey was a first-timer who came from TV commercials and whose post-Shanghai Hoon career highlight is probably the romantic comedy Failure to Launch. Nobody was trying to launch a cinematic revolution with this thing.
But on its own low-stakes terms, Shanghai Noon is a hell of a good time. It’s brisk and lighthearted, the setting gives Chan plenty of fun shit to do in fight scenes, and there’s a real chemistry between its leads. The plot is totally screwball goofiness: A Chinese princess decides that she wants out of her arranged-marriage situation, but she’s kidnapped when she tries to flee to the United States. Chan is a bumbling palace klutz who only gets to join the delegate of warriors to bring her back because his uncle is the one leading the group. When the warriors arrive in America with the princess’s gold ransom, there’s a botched train robbery, Chan’s uncle ends up dead, and, thanks to a series of hijinks, Chan eventually links up with the good-hearted but hapless leader (Wilson) of the train-robber gang.
The casting of Wilson was a total stroke of genius. At this point, Wilson was only a few years out from his debut in Bottle Rocket, and his most famous role up until then was probably his extended cameo in Meet the Parents. His persona, the one that would turn him into a mainstream movie star in The Wedding Crashers a few years later, was already on full display in Shanghai Noon. His character is a big-talking schmuck who doesn’t actually know anything about how to exist as an outlaw and who keeps surviving by sheer dumb luck. He gets excited when he sees his wanted poster because he figures girls will like it. Ultimately, the movie uses Wilson to execute a lot of dumb, broad jokes; it’s only right that Wilson thinks Chan’s character Cong Wang is actually named John Wayne. And through the overwhelming force of his blithe con-man stoner charm, he makes it work. His best line comes when he’s watching Chan use a twisted-up wet shirt to bend prison bars: “A 2000-year-old civilization, and that’s all you could come up with? Shame on you. Shame on you.” It’s all in the delivery.
Wilson and Chan go through all the beats you expect from a movie like this, —initial distrust and eventual friendly kinship— and it works well because they seem to actually like each other. Chan’s vaudeville buffoonery plays beautifully with Wilson’s laconic shit-talk. Chan still does his best acting through his facial expressions; the obligatory scene where he gets stoned smoking a peace pipe is way, way funnier than it could ever read on paper.
Chan was 46 when he made Shanghai Noon, decades into a career of beating the shit out of himself. It’s pretty obvious while watching Shanghai Noon that Chan’s not doing the sort of insane stunts he always did back in Hong Kong, possibly because of his age and possibly because the American film industry just won’t let the star of its movie jump off a cliff or whatever. He even uses a stunt double every now and then. Still, the fights are full of that Chaplin-esque physical-comedy brilliance that nobody will ever be able to do as well as Chan. During the movie’s climax, the way he ping-pongs between loose boards in an old church tower is a thing of beauty. And the setting allows for plenty of fun props to use in fights: A horseshoe tied to the end of a lasso, a pair of moose antlers ripped down from a saloon wall, a sheriff’s badge used as a throwing star.
As dynamic as he is, Shanghai Noon does show that Americanized version of a Jackie Chan movie is just never going to be as good, action-wise. The Old West, after all, was relatively short on martial arts masters, and it’s less fun to watch Chan beat up a couple of yokel deputies than it is to see him take on people who are his equals. Adding Wilson to a fight scene ends up being more of a buzzkill than it’s worth. At one point in the film, the screen cuts from a beautiful duel between Chan and Iron Monkey star Yu Rongguang so that we can see Wilson in a shitty, boring gunfight. Still, Shanghai Noon understands the kinetic joy of a Jackie Chan fight better than most of his English-language movies do. And if the idea of Chan in a classic Old West bar fight doesn’t make you at least a little bit happy, I don’t know what to tell you.
Speaking of the Old West; the movie’s campy period-piece setting feels dated watching it now. That’s partially thanks to the soundtrack: Kid Rock’s “Cowboy” inevitably shows up, as does on-the-nose selections like Aerosmith’s “Back in the Saddle” and ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” The movie treats all of Native American culture as either violent savages or mystical, benevolent friends who are inexplicably happy to help Chan and who only show up at the most convenient moments. The women basically never speak. And maybe this is white-male privilege talking, but this stuff strikes me less as an outrage and more as a dependable source for “holy shit, they thought this was OK?” stoner-giggles.
While the movie didn’t leave an exactly lasting impression on modern culture, it made pretty good money and spawned a sequel in 2003’s Shanghai Knights. It wasn’t a hit anywhere near the level of Rush Hour, and it didn’t exactly spur a new wave of kung fu Western comedies. It came and it went, and you can live a happy and complete life without ever seeing it. But if you’re home from work and just looking for some shit to watch, you could do a whole lot worse.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one. You can read previous installments over here.