ARTS

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February 7, 2003

Shanghai Knights: Brits get kung-powed!

I like kung-fu flicks as much as the next red-blooded male, but something really needs to be done about the American ones. They lack that chain-reaction energy as each fight escalates into an insane physical poetry. Shanghai Knights is no different, but it has the affability of its leads to balance things out. Ultimately, it's a very fun movie.

As with most fun movies, the plot tends to be secondary. Jackie Chan's character, Chon Wang, is a sheriff in a 19th-century western town. As the film opens, he learns that his father, keeper of the Imperial Seal in Beijing, has been murdered, and that his sister has pursued the murderer to England. Grabbing his friend Roy O'Bannon, played by Owen Wilson, Chan sets sail for London.

Various cross-cultural hijinks ensue, including the usual jokes about British teeth, British food, British hygiene, and British royalty. It's a testament to Owen Wilson's skill as a comedian that he can make these situations seem at least relatively fresh. He has the touch of dry wit that a film like this needs; he can't fight, but he can yammer with the best of them.

But the majority of the audience will see Shanghai Knights for the kung fu. And while the martial arts and stunts don't nearly approach the quality of, say, Chan's Drunken Master or even Police Story IV, they're very satisfying in their own right.

In terms of major set pieces, there's a sublime fight atop a set of crates, with Chan wielding an umbrella; there's another in a library; and climactic brawls on a river barge and inside Big Ben. These sequences are pure classic Chan, from the Barishikov-precise footwork to those dexterous fists. And like the best dancers, he makes it all look light and easy.

His main opponent is Donnie Yen, another martial arts veteran who has spent his American career being criminally under-utilized. Which is too bad, because on screen, Yen is harder than swallowing a mouthful of nails with a gasoline chaser. In real life he could probably break Jackie Chan six ways to Sunday. He coasts above the film's silliness with his toughness and dignity intact. The same could not be said of Aidan Gillen, who plays the villainous Rathbone as a stereotypical British fop.

As you watch the fight scenes, though, you notice something almost subliminally different. This is the first film where Jackie Chan seems visibly older. Certain key jumps and flips are obvious wirework, and for many fights, the film speed has been cranked up to accommodate his slower movements.

The most obvious moment, though, comes when Chan has to leap from a bridge onto a barge passing underneath. 10 or 20 years ago, the stunt would have been accomplished in one shot, by Chan himself. Now he requires stunt doubles and four shots to accomplish the stunt. This is not to fault him for toning back a bit; there are only so many years one can fight and leap like a crank-crazed monkey. He's simply compensating a bit, late in the game.

Fann Wong, as Chan's sister, is striking in both looks and fighting ability, although she far too closely resembles an ex of mine. As is the norm for films like this, she spends nearly the whole time being a romantic foil or a damsel in distress, which is really too bad; she has sultry eyes and a roundhouse kick like nobody's business.

Overall, the film works as fun, light entertainment. But then, that's all it's expected to be. This isn't The Pianist, or even Narc. It's a diversion, and as diversions go, you could do much worse.