Shanghai Noon (2000)
Directed by Tom Dey
starring Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Rafael Báez
Impossible 2 (2000)
Ten years ago, Hong Kong fever swept through American film audiences. Names like Jackie Chan, Chow-Yun Fat, and John Woo became common-place well before they appeared on Hollywood's A-list. And The Killer and Drunken Master II were video store staples before their stars could speak a lick of English. Unfortunately, economic and political factors have long since stripped the bloom off the Hong Kong rose, and its major stars have made a bee-line for America. Interestingly, two of the biggest names, Jackie Chan and director John Woo, both have films opening this weekend: Shanghai Noon and Mission: Impossible 2.
The same opening weekend isn't the only thing M:I-2 and Shanghai Noon have in common. Both are surprisingly deliberate and even slow in the opening 45 minutes. Shanghai starts in China's Forbidden City in 1881, where we find out that Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu, Ally McBeal) has fled to America to escape an odious arranged marriage. Jackie Chan, along with three other Imperial Guards, is sent to find her and bring her back. M:I-2, after an opening prologue on an airplane, opens with Tom Cruise sent to find Nyah Hall (Thandie Newton, Beloved), a high-class thief who is indispensable for his next mission. In both movies, the set-up is largely free of huge set-pieces (Jackie Chan has one incident on a train, Tom Cruise has the rock-climbing sequence shown in the previews). Instead, the movies introduce their minor characters and the relationships between them.
Both movies also rely heavily on established genre conventions. Shanghai is a fusion of the western and the martial-arts movie. Taking place near Carson City (where the princess is now being held hostage), the film uses western tropes such as Indians, gun fights, and train robberies and mixes them with elaborate (and clearly staged) fight scenes. M:I-2, as in the original, borrows heavily from the James Bond world as well as more contemporary action movies. From James Bond, we have the alluring female character and a host of very cool gadgets, including tracking systems, sophisticated binoculars, and high-tech communication devices. From the action movies, we have shoot-outs and more shoot-outs. One, in particular, is an embarrassing rip-off from Die Hard.
The two flicks also have the distinction of being sequels. M:I-2 is, of course, the follow-up to the first installment. Shanghai Noon is the follow-up to 1998's Rush Hour. Wait a second, you say. Rush Hour was a completely different movie, with a fast-talking Chris Tucker set in contemporary America, not the Wild Wild West. Yes, the setting and co-star might be different, but in every other aspect the movies are the same. Stick Jackie Chan with a comic side-kick (this time it's Owen Wilson from The Haunting), make a bunch of fish-out-of-water jokes, add in some cool martial-art scenes, and stir. Voila, Rush Hour 2, aka Shanghai Noon.
Despite the bows to Hollywood and genre, both Jackie Chan and director John Woo are able to hold on to some of what made their Hong Kong movies so enjoyable. Jackie Chan has great comic timing and a genuinely sweet persona. Even though he can destroy four men with a series of flying kicks and karate chops, you sense he'd rather just be playing drinking games and cracking jokes. Woo, on the other hand, refined the art of stylized violence with movies like The Killer and incorporates his elegant gun battles and swooping camera work into M:I-2. The fluid cinematography of Jeffrey Kimball (Wild Things) and the sharp editing of Christian Wagner (Face/Off) are a perfect match for Woo's high-concept world.
Unfortunately, only one of the two movies can be described as a success. Shanghai Noon feels like what it is: a tired retread hoping to capitalize on its star's innate charisma. The jokes are obvious and rarely funny. One involves Jackie Chan urinating on his own shirt, another has him getting high with his Indian friends, and there's even the obligatory fart-and-excrement jokes. Wilson, who is genuinely funny in a couple places, can't rise above his material. Chan, himself, seems embarrassed to be involved.
Noon's pacing is also particularly awkward. The movie starts out slow and then debut director Tom Dey realizes that he needs to speed things up, so he throws out any pretense of narrative. In one shot, Chan and Wilson separate over their differences, but in the very next scene Wilson inexplicably rides to Chan's rescue. And then, as if scenes were mysteriously cut out, we're immediately transported to a church for the final showdown. Why a church? Your guess is better than mine, as screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (Lethal Weapon 4) never bother to tell us.
Worst of all is that the fight scenes are largely perfunctory. Jackie Chan does have a nice moment with a horseshoe and the final battle incorporates some spectacular high-altitude moments, but otherwise Shanghai is bland. And not that anyone can blame him, but it's obvious that the 46-year-old Chan isn't doing all of his own stunts. In two clearly dangerous moments, his face is conspicuously hidden.
Mission: Impossible-2, however, is surprisingly enjoyable. The movie is expertly paced. While the opening third is slow, it is still gripping. Woo and screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) understand that you don't need continuous explosions to keep the audience's attention. When Newton and Cruise are hiding in someone's villa, the tension, both sexual and otherwise, is wonderful. Later, as they try to rendezvous during a horse race, the subtle editing creates a surprisingly anxious atmosphere. True, the final 40 minutes is a non-stop series of gun battles and fight scenes, but even here Woo is able to carry the tension rather than let it dissipate. It doesn't hurt that the choreography is fantastic. Even Tom Cruise looks cool and believable.
M:I-2 isn't a perfect movie, for sure. While Newton gives a solid performance, Woo seems more interested in her breasts than her acting ability. She goes from wearing a push-up bra to none at all, and Woo often shoots her in sultry slo-mo. And then she drops out of the movie in the last hour. Couldn't the filmmakers have found a way to use an experienced thief, or did Cruise demand all the climactic screentime? Nonetheless, M:I-2 is a nice opening to the summer blockbuster season. Expertly paced, with a compelling narrative and enough action to keep people happy, it should satisfy anyone who liked the first one.
J. Robert Parks 05/23/2000