Though the "Rush Hour" films will undoubtedly remain the more popular of the two, "Shanghai Knights" and its predecessor, "Shanghai Noon," are actually the more enjoyable for die-hard Chan fans. Where Jackie works as little more than a minor collaborator on the "Rush Hour" pictures, on the "Shanghai" films he is a key creative player as executive producer and principal fight choreographer.
On the whole, "Shanghai Knights" trumps its predecessor in almost every way. It's funnier, faster and smarter--qualities which, for some, may be offset by a broader, campier sense of humor than the first film dared indulge. Picking up shortly after "Shanghai Noon" left off, "Shanghai Knights" finds Chon Wang (Chan) working as a bona-fide Western lawman, a job of which his estranged father--still in the service of the Chinese emperor--disapproves. But when assassins kill Chon's father, attack his sister (Fann Wong) and steal the imperial seal, honor demands that he once again step into action.
Needing money to travel to England where his sister has tracked the killers, Chon seeks out his old buddy Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson), naively believing that Roy has actually safeguarded and invested their riches from the previous adventure. Roy, of course, has squandered the whole booty and earned a few enemies in the process. But old bonds die hard and, before long, Chon and Roy are once again teamed up and headed--by hook or by crook--to London.
What subsequently unfolds is a first-rate, if slightly overlong, fish-out-of-water action-comedy in which Chon, his sister and Roy must get to the bottom of an unholy alliance between a minor English nobleman named Rathbone (Aidan Gillen) and a disgraced Chinese royal named Wu Yip (Donnie Yen) by which both would assume, through diabolical means, the thrones of their respective nations.
The film's formula for fun is, for the most part, quite simple: a solid dose of Jackie's trademark action sequences peppered with intermittent jabs at the English, a dash of Hope/Crosby-style buddy banter and gobs of anachronistic references involving both fictional and factual figures of the period (none of which are remotely accurate, historically or otherwise).
If anything, screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who wrote the previous film, are a bit too clever for their own good--the gags and gimmicks are delivered at an alarming rate that many audiences may not be prepared to absorb. The quality of the gags, however, is consistently high--matched and exceeded by several fight sequences which rank among Jackie's best in years. Though Chan has slowed down considerably, he still has the athleticism to deliver the goods--remarkable for a man pushing 50. And though large portions of several sequences are clearly lifted from older Chan films, they have been adapted in such a way that feels fresh and suited to the material.
Ironically, the film's most historic achievement may be the one that escapes most American audiences: The climactic showdown between Chan and veteran Hong Kong superstar Yen is the first time the two martial arts film fixtures have ever appeared together on-screen, much less fought. Yen, soon to be seen again in Zhang Yimou's highly-anticipated "Hero" opposite Jet Li, doesn't get the chance to fully display his considerable talents, though it is, by far, his best and most impressive Hollywood showcase to date.
The one almost invisible presence is the film's director, David Dobkin, who wisely takes a page from predecessor Tom Dey by favoring consistency over sizzle. Apart from the action scenes, which were primarily handled by Jackie, the filmmaking is solid but unostentatious, cementing a franchise formula for success. Starring Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Fann Wong, Donnie Yen, Aaron Johnson, Aiden Gillen and Tom Fisher. Directed by David Dobkin. Written by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar. Produced by Roger Birnbaum, Jonathan Glickman and Gary Barber. A Buena Vista release. Action-Comedy. Rated PG-13 for action violence and sexual content. Running time: 114 min