What, then, is the verdict? In a word, fabulous.
Despite some cursory plot similarities to "Rush Hour" (Jackie teaming with an American to rescue a kidnapped Chinese woman), "Shanghai Noon" is faster, funnier and more inventive than its predecessor, allowing Jackie greater latitude to indulge his unique physical and comic talents and providing him a co-star (Owen Wilson) better-suited to complement, rather than compete with, those talents. It is precisely the movie for which Jackie Chan fans have always dreamed--a true Jackie Chan film, financed with Hollywood money.
Set in 1881, the story centers on the efforts of misfit Imperial Guardsman Chon Wang (Jackie) to bring his kidnapped Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) back to Beijing from Carson City, Nevada, where she is being held against her will by a renegade ex-Guardsman-turned-railroad baron named Lo Fong (Roger Yuan). Along the way, Chon repeatedly crosses paths with a wily gentleman bandit named Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson), each causing endless trouble for the other before O'Bannon finds out about the chest of Imperial gold being offered as ransom and calls a truce, proposing that teamwork would better serve their respective interests.
Originally conceived and scripted by Jackie nearly 10 years ago, "Shanghai Noon" is replete with unmistakable Chan touches, closely following the formula of his classic turn-of-the-century actioners "Project A" and "Project A Part II" (from which several "Shanghai Noon" scenes are borrowed) wherein interwoven threads of recurring characters and subplots creates a comedic pretext for the action. In "Shanghai Noon" those threads include a band of watchful native Americans, corrupt lawmen and a trio of Roy's resentful ex-colleagues, all of whom help make the narrative as colorful as it is unpredictable. More serious, historical themes enter the picture as well, focusing primarily on the exploitation of Chinese immigrants as railroad labor.
For screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, who earned the ire of Asian-Americans for their "Lethal Weapon 4" script, "Shanghai Noon" is nothing shy of redemption, both furiously funny and exceedingly respectful of its subjects. It is Jackie's complete and meticulous attention to detail, however, that ultimately gives the film its personality, manifesting itself throughout the production on every level, from direction down to photography and editing. While it's often hard to tell where Jackie's contributions leave off and those of credited collaborators pick up, debut director Tom Dey (a veteran of commercials) and editor Richard Chew appear to deserve at least a fair amount of credit for the overall effort.
Jackie and Owen's chemistry so impressed Disney executives that a sequel was put into the works months before the film was due to hit theatres, and audiences are sure to be equally delighted. Perfectly matched in temperament and timing, they make for a classic duo whose many cinematic exploits have surely only begun.
Special bonuses for Hong Kong movie fans include the stunt and action choreography work of Jackie's childhood friend and frequent co-star Yuen Biao, as well as veteran action star Yu Rong Guang in a brief, somewhat thankless cameo as the head Imperial Guardsman trusted with delivering the ransom. Starring Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Lucy Liu, Roger Yuan, Brandon Merrill and Xander Berkeley. Directed by Tom Dey. Written by Alfred Gough & Miles Millar. Produced by Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber and Jonathan Glickman. A Buena Vista release. Action/Comedy. Rated PG-13 for action violence, some drug humor, language and sensuality. Running time: 111 min