If nothing else --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 dependent upon silent-film slapstick to compensate for Chan's cue-card English, but here they sit heavy on his shoulder and nod their skulls in approval, especially after so drab and messy an outing as last year's The Tuxedo, in which the 48-year-old Chan admitted, much to his chagrin, to using stunt doubles. There are, however, still grins to be gotten from his kicks and chops and swordplay and balletic handling of whatever's-handy props, such as the umbrellas that cue the soundtrack to spin the title song from Singin' in the Rain. There's fight left in the old Chan yet.
But the man's deft and dangerous punch never delivers the punch line; this sequel to 2000's Shanghai Noon exists only because any Chan movie that makes money will inevitably spawn a franchise. Hence the forthcoming Rush Hour 3, a title that sounds more like a threat.
If you remember Shanghai Noon -- and more likely you recall the dozens of horse operas from which Millar and Gough looted like bandits on a rampage -- this one's little different, save for the fact that it takes place in 1887 England, allowing for copious jokes about rotten teeth, the Queen's Jubilee celebration, cars driving on the wrong side of the road (years before automobiles were on London streets, mind you), the Brits losing the Revolutionary War, the stoicism of Buckingham Palace guards, and awful food.
Writers Millar and Gough regurgitate a familiar plot: novelist Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson), his old friend Chon Wang (Chan), and his little sister (Fann Wong, replacing Lucy Liu) set out to avenge the death of Chon's father, who was murdered by two men (British actor Aiden Gillen 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 that kills time, and brain cells, between feats and fists of fury?
What's most distressing is that Wilson -- co-star and co-author 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, of multimillion-dollar paychecks doled out for food-stamp movies. How else to explain his involvement in Armageddon, Behind Enemy Lines, The Haunting, and, most recent and most unfortunate, I Spy, except to say there's long green to be made from appearing in movies short on everything?