Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: there has not been one second since the title was announced that I have felt anything but dull rage about the name of Star Trek Into Darkness, especially with that despicable lack of a colon. With a more robust Star Trek marathon in the wings, and since the theme "I Will Fucking Punch Your Lens Flares in the Cock" would just take us right back to the 2009 Star Trek reboot, it seemed alright to stretch a point.
Men in Black, and that's maybe even the best example of its generation of filmmaking, but there are many, many other examples of the things, in a wide gulf of quality.
Here, for example we have buddy cop movie in the Old West! with martial arts! Shanghai Noon, with the bickering heroes played by Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan, making only his second U.S. film: the first, Rush Hour, was a more generically classic buddy cop movie with Chris Tucker, and it does well to point that out right at the onset, because for all of the problems that Shanghai Noon has, it has one of them to the same degree as Rush Hour, let alone its gigantically awful sequels. If that means that I'm inclined to overvalue Shanghai Noon simply for not being outrageously bad, well, the critic is a human being like anybody else.
The ephemeral plot begins in 19th Century China, where Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) is being forced by her father the emperor to marry an unpleasant nobleman, and in a fit of anachronistic feminism, she arranges with the court's American tutor, Andrews (Jason Connery), to spirit her into that land of freedom and democracy. In a stunning twist, he ends up betraying her, turning her over to former imperial guard Lo Fong (Roger Yuan), who has made his business in the States by selling out his countrymen into virtual slavery working on the railroad. He's abducted the princess for money and revenge, and so he sends back to China a ransom, which is to be delivered by the emperor's three greatest warriors - and, tagging along, hapless guard Chon Wang (Chan), mostly on the hopes that some American outlaw will kill him and make things easier on everybody else.
There is, meanwhile, an entirely separate plot, in which hapless American outlaw Roy O'Bannon (Wilson) is losing control over his gang, with the psychopathic Texan Wallace (Walton Goggins) having recently joined in, and solving every problem with a bit too liberal an application of gunfire. It so happens one fine day that O'Bannon's gang is robbing the very same train that the Chinese guards are riding on, and Chon's beloved uncle ends up dead as a result. So it is that, in due course, Chon and O'Bannon both end up stranded in the Nevada desert, with a healthy measure of intense dislike for one another: it's not until they end up trapped in jail together, from which they are freed by Chon's accidental Sioux wife Falling Leaves (Brandon Merrill), who arrives in the plot via a farcical complication that feels enough like a parody of The Searchers that it might actually be deliberate; the film has quite its fair share of references to classical Westerns, including a villain, Van Cleef (Xander Berkeley), named after the co-star of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly among other films.
At this point, Chon and O'Bannon finally decide to drop their feud and become allies, staying just ahead of the law while hunting down Lo Fong and saving the princess. This, then, brings me to what is easily the biggest flaw with the movie on its own terms (rather than the terms of cinema as an art form; for of course, you hardly need me to point out that a Western buddy cop movie called Shanghai Noon isn't looking to tap into the Resnais or Bresson crowds): at 110 minutes all told, it takes almost exactly half of the film's running time before it sets Chan and Wilson in the same room and gives them more than a few lines of dialogue to banter with. There are really only two things that the film promises, one of them being the wacky antics as the drawling American and the heavily accented, slapsticky Asian have to fight crime together, the other being Chan's acrobatic stunt work. For it to take almost a full hour before the first of these even starts to make its presence felt is a betrayal of the Buddy Cop rulebook; the ur-text of the genre in its modern form, Lethal Weapon, only gives us one scene to establish each of the two protagonists before throwing them together, where Shanghai Noon has an act and a half. And frankly, Shanghai Noon isn't a good enough movie to hold attention for that long: the plot is obviously perfunctory, and Tom Dey's direction utterly quotidian and in some places actively bad (he uses some pretty questionable camera set-ups in filming Chan's various physical exertions).
It's a good thing, then, that Chan's action sequences here do work, because for a long time, that's absolutely the only thing the movie has going for it. This is a fairly empty statement to make, but it's easily the best fighting in any of his American films (which fairly quickly degenerated into family-friendly tosh that didn't exert the aging martial arts star too badly; indeed, assuming from the example of his later films that Shanghai Noon was itself a bouncy family-friendly cartoon, I was thrown to find that it's actually quite naughty-minded in spots), blending the comic and the brutal far more effectively than he'd be able to do again in Hollywood's neutering bosom. Beyond question, you're better off with just about any one of his '90s Hong Kong productions, but equally beyond question, he's able to play here to far better effect than in e.g. Rush Hour 2 or The Tuxedo.
When, eventually, the "Jackie Chan fight scenes peppered throughout a mostly insipid Western comedy" picture morphs into the "Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson toss dialogue at each other" picture, the improvement is massive, though perilously close to too little, too late. At no point does Shanghai Noon fail to subscribe to the most vanilla possible '80s action movie plot tropes, but at least the actors have enough chemistry that the plot seems more like the pretext for a movie that it is, than the driving purpose of a movie that it is far too weak-kneed to be. I will not go s far as to say that the Chan/Wilson pairing is one for the ages, but they're equally silly in different ways, and especially compared to Chan's previous and subsequent teamings with Chris Tucker, the actors' comic tones mesh really well, with no sense of scene-stealing or one-upping each other. You can't get a whole lot less substantial than this, but well-played, friendly banter is tough to do, and Shanghai Noon hits its mark perfectly on that front: the leads are enough fun, and both irreverent to just the perfect degree, that it would be worth watching them plugging through even the most inane nonsense. Which is good, because that's exactly what the film asks them to do.