Set in the late 1800s, Shanghai Knights adds yet another entry to Jackie Chan's growing list of American buddy flicks (since when did "buddy" become its own genre of film alongside drama and action?). This sequel to 2000's more cleverly titled Shanghai Noon reunites the king of comedic kung fu with Owen Wilson for a sophomore round of generic but entertaining east-meets-west hijinks.
When his father is killed by a British national, former imperial guard Chon Wang (Jackie Chan) teams up with his old companion Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson) and travels to England to seek vengeance. With additional help from his sister Lin (Fann Wong), he manages to track down the murderer, but in the process, also uncovers a plot to usurp the thrones of England and China.
The story is such a readily accepted textbook reason to launch a pair of mismatched buddies on an adventure that it's hardly worth griping about the lack of originality. No one in their right mind ever looks for a first class story in this genre, so it's best to move on to the aspects that do merit some level of expectation: the comedy and the action. Unfortunately, both are painfully standard and never come close to pushing any proverbial envelopes. The comedy is amusing, but never riotously funny, and the action is the usual graceful, humorous, toned down kung fu audiences have come to expect from Chan's American films.
The stars of the show are in full typecast mode. Chan is once again the likeable fallguy a la Rush Hour and The Tuxedo, while Owen Wilson is...well, Owen Wilson. The dimwitted-yet-quick-thinking demeanor that has become his characteristic trademark makes his Roy O'Bannon virtually indistinguishable from his roles in Zoolander, Behind Enemy Lines, and I Spy. Like everything else in Shanghai Knights, it's wholly typical--but it works, so why change it?
Fann Wong doesn't say much as avenging sister Lin, but she hangs around looking cute and kicks a little butt. And that's pretty much all you can ask for in this brand of supporting role.
As is often the case with action comedies, the main villain is prissy, melodramatic, and weak. In this case, it's English evildoer Rathbone (Aidan Gillen), who Roy sums up succinctly by tagging him, "the man who would be queen." In typical Bond badguy fashion, he seals his own doom by not killing the hero when he has the chance--will they ever learn? Donnie Yen is better as a secondary villain, if only because his showdown with Jackie Chan kicks the martial arts up to a more furious pace.
The movie's inclusion of author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Charlie Chaplin is somewhat clever, even though the stricter pundits may have issue with the obvious historical inaccuracies. But with Jackie Chan being so influenced by Buster Keaton, there's a certain charm in the notion of Chon Wang inspiring a young Chaplin.
A common attitude in making a buddy movie is that it's better to have a cookie-cutter success than a cutting edge flop. Shanghai Knights does nothing to counter this notion, but I have difficulty in faulting Chan for any of his movies. He's an entertainer without pretension, and even though his roles in recent years have been getting awfully redundant, he continues to pull off the sometimes thankless job of making people laugh. While this sequel is just a rehash of previously seen material, it still manages to be an entertaining enough diversion.
Rating: 6 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)