SHANGHAI NOON: anachronistic escapism that has worn well (2000 in Film #22)

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This year, 20 years on from the year 2000, I’m going to celebrate the first year of cinema in the 21st century by looking back at some of the films across the year at the turn of the millennium which took No #1 at the box office for their opening weekends.

This week, released on the weekend of May 26th, Tom Dey’s Shanghai Noon

Again, this week I’m cheating, because I just cannot bring myself to devote time, energy and words to the box office winner of the June 2nd weekend: Big Momma’s House.

This is partly because in a few weeks, Nutty Professor II: The Klumps is incoming and touching on similar ground, but also because there doesn’t seem to be any cultural relevance or reward in discussing Martin Lawrence gurning as a woman while dressed in a fat suit. The thought of devoting time to that is depressing, even while the proliferation of such base, lowest common denominator comedy is arguably an extension of content we saw in the 90’s such as the Farrelly Brothers successes such as Dumb & Dumber or There’s Something About Mary, simply taken to a different level, and partly designed to appeal to an African-American audience. It is, put simply, not my thing.

Shanghai Noon, however, perhaps does warrant a look. Tom Dey’s comedic action adventure was released the same weekend as Mission Impossible II and, as you can imagine, struggled to hold its own under the weight of the Tom Cruise sequel and Disney’s Dinosaur, but it nevertheless slightly out performed its modest budget and struck something of a chord, with not just the star wattage of Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson but the mash-up of multiple genres that came together for quite an old-fashioned bit of fun; the kind of film you could imagine having been made in the lighter, brighter 1980’s, and almost at odds with the darker, serious, dour blockbusters that would come to define an edgier, even more earnest decade before the Age of Marvel.

To discuss this one in more detail, however, I’m handing back over to 2013-era Tony, who reviewed the film back then, and who you may remember discussing Road Trip recently, before returning with a postscript. Take it away, younger self…

There’s barely a bone of originality in Shanghai Noon, certainly when it comes to the buddy-buddy set up, the unlikely friendship born out of adversity between two extremely different people. You’d think actually Jackie Chan wouldn’t have rushed into a movie like this so soon after developing a similar partnership with Chris Tucker in Rush Hour, but perhaps what drew him to Tom Dey’s film was the 19th century stylings of the piece, perhaps the laconic Owen Wilson as his partner, and perhaps the simple fact he knew he’d have fun – and that’s the main order of the day here. Shanghai Noon may be entirely predictable and frequently dumb as movies come, but it’ll put a smile on your face and sometimes not much else is needed.

Culture clash comedy is what we get here and that’s the main selling point really from Dey’s film – the Wild West setting of outlaws and general roguery contrasted with the stiff rule book of Imperial China, and inevitably if Wilson’s outlaw Roy O’Bannon learns the meaning of loyalty & honour, then Chan’s Chon certainly learns that it’s ok sometimes to ditch the rule book in doing the right thing. Simple lessons, simply told, and therein lies the charm of the whole thing. 

It’s made with such a gleeful knowing of how very silly it is, a frequent tip of the hat to the juxtaposed genres of Wild West bravado & kung fu chop suey, it becomes very hard to dislike even when the plot meanders on various occasions (like Chan’s sojourn into Native America) or we’re treated to a very thin plot from Roger Yuen’s weak, money grabbing villain that also incidentally wastes Lucy Liu in a damsel in distress role (though at least Xander Berkeley is there to chew the scenery as a corrupt sheriff). If you stop to think much about what’s going on… well my advice is simply don’t. Enjoy the easy going banter between Chan & Wilson that, if not a classic buddy pairing, then works perfectly well, and enjoy the various comic action beats and several very well executed gags.

A nice bit of comedic action fluff then, Shanghai Noon. Nothing too taxing, nothing too memorable, but a solid diversion – and a very lovely looking one too, the vibrant colors and character of the Old West very much brought out by Tom Dey in an enticing palette. Not the best film Chan or Wilson have done by any means, but you could do far worse if you have a brewski in hand and are looking for something fun to kill an hour or two.

Looking back twenty years on, Shanghai Noon feels both like a flashback to an earlier time of more innocent pictures, and also slightly predictive of the vanguard of over the top, colourful comic-book cinema that the Marvel Cinematic Universe would use to define large scale American filmmaking across the 2010’s. Chan and Wilson here are, by and large, buddy buddy superheroes who have fun in the Eastern/Western mesh of styles while swopping barbs and one-liners. It isn’t fresh, and doesn’t hit the heights of the best comic-book movies to come, but it is so enjoyably pulpy, in the post-modern era of the early 2000’s it already feels like an artefact.

Audiences enjoyed it enough, mind you, to warrant a sequel in 2003, the London-based, Victorian-era set Shanghai Knights, but in swopping the Wild West for Jack the Ripper England, the franchise stalled, despite plans for Shanghai Dawn, a third film that would have taken the characters potentially back to 19th century China. Discussions were still underway about it as recently as 2016, and weirdly enough, what would now be a revival for this nascent franchise could work better in the early 2020’s than it would have around 2005 or 2006, when audiences were turning away from cheesy comedy heroes to brooding, introspective warriors. Chan and Wilson might be a little past their sell by date, in age and as leading men, but their brand of light escapism could now just be what the doctor ordered.

Shanghai Noon, at least, is a diverting bit of enjoyable silliness which runs counter to the darker impulses in blockbuster cinema that 2000 and subsequent years would usher in, and remains a slice of fun to this day.

Read the previous 2000 in Film pieces here:

1 – The Hurricane

2 – Next Friday

3 – Down to You

4 – Eye of the Beholder

5 – Scream 3

6 – The Beach

7 – The Whole Nine Yards

8 – Wonder Boys

9 – The Next Best Thing

10 – Mission to Mars

11 – Erin Brockovich

12 – Romeo Must Die

13 – The Road to El Dorado

14 – Rules of Engagement

15 – 28 Days

16 – U-571

17 – Frequency

18 – Gladiator

19 – Battlefield Earth

20 – Road Trip

21 – Mission Impossible II

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