Film of the Week: 'Shanghai Knights'

STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- Movie reviewers love to issue edicts about whether a film's male and female leads exhibit "chemistry." Yet, critical judgments on chemistry diverge laughably, more than even for notoriously subjective issues such as how funny a movie is.

Regular moviegoers also seem to hold equally strong but contradictory opinions on which couples have and haven't romantic chemistry.


Personally, I've given up expounding on male-female chemistry. To an insensitive lug like me, it's as pointless as trying to develop an opinion on a Concerto for Dog Whistle.

My wife will ask, "Did you think they really had chemistry?" All I can think to reply is, "Well, sure. I mean, they are two wildly attractive members of the opposite sex. If they weren't, they wouldn't be movie stars. Why wouldn't they be attracted to each other? And even if they weren't, they sure are being paid enough to fake it." But she just looks at me, wondering what kind of defective she married.

Perhaps that's one reason why romance movies seldom decisively break out above the $100 million box office barrier. Women seldom can agree on whether the leads are really striking sparks because their own tastes in men don't agree.


Scientists have found that for women, "chemistry" really is based to some extent on the chemistry of odors. Women seem to like men who smell different from their fathers and brothers, perhaps because they have different immune system genes.

In contrast, audiences seems less persnickety about the chemistry of male leads in buddy movies. Even that oddest of odd couples, Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker, made $226 million domestically in "Rush Hour 2."

Perhaps even weirder was the teaming of Jackie with Owen Wilson in 2000's cowboy comedy "Shanghai Noon." I thought it was delightful, but it did just moderately well at the domestic box office, earning $57 million. Jackie, though, is one of the biggest stars overseas, so the sequel, "Shanghai Knights," opens Friday.

Jackie is the greatest slapstick genius since Buster Keaton, and, in contrast to Old Stoneface, is as loveable-looking as Charlie Chaplin. Unfortunately, Cantonese and English are two very different languages and Jackie started way too late in life to fully master English. So, Hollywood teams him with motormouth Americans who do the talking while he does the fighting.

In the first film, Jackie was an Imperial Chinese bodyguard sent to the Old West for some reason or another. There, he met a loquacious and empathetic train robber, played by Owen Wilson, the blonde actor-writer with the unrepaired broken nose who purses his lips and chews his words.


Whether you find Owen's character funny or not probably depends on your taste for anachronism. He dressed like a cowboy but looked and talked like a surfer from Santa Cruz who had spent too long getting in touch with his feelings in a hot tub at the Esalen Institute.

The new sequel puts Jackie and Owen in London, where they retrieve the Chinese Imperial Seal and save Queen Victoria. Unfortunately, the dialogue and plot have been dumbed down for the global market.

What was originally amusing about Owen's character is that for a person supposedly living in the 19th century, every single thing about him is subtly but utterly wrong. This time, you get to hear him utter a few inappropriately Dilbertesque phrases like "skill set." Yet, because that kind of humor is hard to translate into Tagalog, the screenwriters made less of an effort with his lines.

Instead, they emphasize having the boys constantly meet people we later find out will go down in history. But, once again, the script for a globalized movie like this has to aim at the lowest common denominator of world culture, so all we get are crude allusions to famous folk like Jack the Ripper.


That leaves Jackie's fights, which work in any language. Fortunately, the editing is slightly less hyper than in his other big budget Hollywood flicks. Back in his low-budget Hong Kong days, they just let the camera roll while he ran through stunts as intricately choreographed as Fred Astaire's numbers.

While "Shanghai Noon" spoofed Westerns, "Shanghai Knights" pays tribute to silent movies. Jackie battles the Keystone Cops in a revolving doorway and the guys dangle from the hands of Big Ben a la Harold Lloyd.

The highlight of the movie is an extended fight that, when Jackie grabs an umbrella to smite his foes, surprisingly transforms into a loving parody of Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" dance.

Jackie is 48 now and, as I reported two years ago, has begun using stunt doubles. His future just might lie in musicals.

Rated PG-13 for action violence and sexual content. The sex jokes are too blatant for a star with his own cartoon series for kids.

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