Anarchy in the U.K.

If nothing else — and there’s nothing else to this movie — Shanghai Knights allows Jackie Chan, he of halting dialogue and poetic movement, to pay direct homage to his idols. He hangs from the arms of Big Ben, dangling off the stories-tall clock like Harold Lloyd in 1923’s Safety First; he tangles with a little tramp, who by film’s end makes himself known as Charlie Chaplin (years before he was born, but whatever); he romps with Scotland Yard detective Artie Doyle, father of Sherlock Holmes, whom Buster Keaton would play in 1924’s Sherlock, Jr. The ghosts of Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin have always hovered over Chan, especially in the Hollywood outings so dependent upon silent-film slapstick to compensate for Chan’s cue-card English. Here, they sit heavy on his shoulder and nod in approval. There are still grins to be gotten from his kicks and chops and swordplay and balletic handling of whatever’s-handy props. There’s fight left in Chan yet.

But the man’s deft punch never delivers the punch line. This sequel to 2000’s Shanghai Noon can no more find a joke than Owen Wilson can deliver a line without sounding like he just took a toke. The movie exists not because its writers (Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, responsible for the first movie) came bearing fresh jokes and fleshed-out characters but because any Chan movie that makes money inevitably spawns a franchise. Hence the forthcoming Rush Hour 3, a title that sounds more like a threat.

Knights takes place in 1887 England, allowing for gags about rotten teeth, the Queen’s Jubilee celebration, cars driving on the wrong side of the road (years before automobiles were on London streets), the Revolutionary War, the stoicism of Buckingham Palace guards, and awful food. There’s not a single laugh-out-loud joke to be found in its attempt to wring still more humor out of the culture-clash scenario that has become a staple of Chan’s American-made buddy pictures.

Would that the filmmakers — including clumsy director David Dobkin, replacing Tom Dey — had built their film out of the film’s smallest, smartest gag. Wilson’s Roy O’Bannon has written a novel titled Roy O’Bannon vs. The Mummy, in which he has transformed the plot of the first movie into a best-selling supernatural thriller that reduces Chan’s character, Chon Wang, to a bit player. To make a name for himself, Roy has spent a fortune, engaged in revisionist history and betrayed his old friend in the process.

But Millar and Gough have no interest in offering wry commentary about the fleeting and corrupting nature of fame; they have no time for a story about men who use and abuse each other under the flimsy guise of friendship. (At every turn, Chon and Roy bad-mouth each other.) They instead regurgitate a familiar plot: Roy, Chon and his little sister (Fann Wong, replacing Lucy Liu in essentially the same warrior-goddess role) set out to avenge the death of Chon’s father, who was murdered by two men (British actor Aiden Gillen, looking like a young Alec Baldwin, and Chinese actor Donnie Yen) hell-bent on overthrowing their respective homelands. But why would the writers bother with narrative, when the story is just something to kill time between feats and fists of fury?

Most disappointing, Wilson — costar and cowriter of Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums, films of authentic voice and genuine emotion — keeps showing up in movies that barely feel written at all. His is quickly becoming a résumé of distressing mediocrity. How else to explain his involvement in Armageddon, Behind Enemy Lines, The Haunting and I Spy except to say that there’s long green to be made appearing in movies short on everything.

Categories: Movies