Our review of Shanghai Noon / Shanghai Knights (Blu-ray), published May 15th, 2013, is also available.
The classic western gets a kick in the pants.
Jackie Chan (Rush Hour), comic martial artist extraordinaire, teams up with one of my favorite underrated actors Owen Wilson (Minus Man) for this slap-happy western comedy with modern sensibilities. Shanghai Noon is a comic romp paying homage to more films than you can swing moose antlers at. With both physical comedy and droll wit, this film is a clear winner. Disney, through Touchstone Home Video, has done a wonderful job with this DVD in the picture, sound, and bonus feature areas, yet has one terrible flaw.
Facts of the Case
Jackie Chan plays Chon Wang (say that fast), an Imperial Guard in 1880s China who is smitten with Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu, of "Ally McBeal" fame), and must travel to the American West to rescue her after she flees a planned marriage and gets kidnapped in the process. Before he can attempt the rescue, he is thrown in with outlaw Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson), a blonde bon vivant who seems to only be an outlaw to impress women and seems more like a modern day party guy transported to the 19th century. Together they face jail, posses, and hanging, but persevere to find and rescue the princess, held by a Chinese traitor extorting the Emperor. But the Princess does not want to be sent back to China, preferring to stay in the West and aid the plight of Chinese immigrants treated like virtual slaves for the railroads. Will Chon (now dubbed The Shanghai Kid) and Roy manage to overcome bad shooting, evil sheriffs, and the Chinese guards determined to send her back? This is a Western; draw your own conclusions.
Jackie Chan fans already know what this actor is capable of. A master martial artist, he is also a comic in the tradition of silent film great Buster Keaton, and conveys much without having to resort to his limited English skills. He is the master of what I call "prop martial arts," meaning he can use anything at hand to incorporate into his fighting scenes, usually to great comic effect. He is also renown for doing all his own stunts, and often pulls off incredible feats that most films would resort to computer graphics to simulate. One of the stunts, with rolling logs falling off a railroad car, was done by Chan and Wilson's stunt double, who said "Today is a good day to die" before attempting it. Since coming to America to make films, Chan's English has slowly improved, and he can even hold his own with spoken comedy now. Perhaps "hold his own" is speaking too much in this case, as Owen Wilson has a constant comic patter that keeps a grin on your face for nearly the entire film.
As usual in any Jackie Chan flick, expect fast and furious fight scenes that are well choreographed and show an unsurpassed level of imagination. What Chan can do with a horseshoe, a set of moose antlers, and even evergreen trees shows a level of innovation that has taken the American martial arts film up several notches. But these scenes are also funny, with many of the moves calculated for a laugh.
This is also a typical "fish out of water" story, as Chon Wang makes his start in the West bedecked in the silk robes of an Imperial Guard, which goes over big with the cowhands and the Indian tribes as you can imagine. With O'Bannon's help, he grows more accustomed and acclimated to the West, as Roy learns from Chon in the buddy picture tradition. But the film itself is a fish out of water as well, with modern euphemisms sprinkled through the dialogue and rock and roll playing as part of the musical score. Indeed, the film seems modern even though it is clearly set in the 1880s. The two main female characters are both strong and independent women, from the Princess's social consciousness and martial arts to rodeo star Brandon Merrill's confident portrayal of Chon's Indian "bride," uncharacteristic of the period.
But while it strives to keep pushing the modern day aspects of the characters, it also pays homage to many classic westerns with reminiscent scenes and shots. To balance the off-kilter timeline and the over the top story, the sets, locations, and even the methods of shooting are often copies of something done in another film. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid gets paid special homage, but there are at least 20 other film references that a viewer paying close attention can notice. In this case the film works as intended, to pay respect and perhaps engage in some good-natured parody rather than be a rip off. This film is the directorial debut of Tom Dey, who acquits himself well, especially for giving these two fine actors the ability to work around and find the best way to get a scene right. The story stays surprisingly tight considering the amount of improvisation on the set, and this is to Dey's credit also. Beautiful cinematography done both in Beijing and in Canada lend itself well to the gorgeous scenery and realistic sets as well.
I have to admit that when Disney tries to do a disc right they can really do a good job. This 2.35:1 anamorphic transfer is pretty much flawless. Of course, this is a new film, so they had a pristine source print to work from, and it pays off with no nicks, scratches, or other film defects that show up in the transfer. Colors are vibrant, shadow detail, blacks, and fleshtones all fine, and there are no artifacting or edge enhancement problems. A first rate transfer. The soundtrack is likewise excellent, though fits more into the typical comedy track syndrome; meaning it is mainly front centered. But there is decent use from the surround channels and enough bass response when called for, which is rarely. Randy Edelman's musical score and songs from ZZ Top and Aerosmith all come through with great clarity, and dialogue is always clear as well, though you may find Chan's accent troubling once or twice.
Disney has even come through in the area of bonus features this time around. A commentary track with director Tom Dey and co-star Owen Wilson is supplemented with input from Jackie Chan speaking from Istanbul where he is working on a new film, and is very entertaining and informative. I really enjoyed it, and after listening to as many commentaries as I have it is easy to get jaded. Seven deleted scenes are next offered with or without commentary, all anamorphic and finished. One of them I actually wish had been left in, which would have explained things a little better at the end, but most of them were cut for pacing and could be done without. Seven featurettes, each lasting about 4-5 minutes, cover different aspects of making the film, and only one of them would I call pure promotional fluff. Next up is "Shanghai Surprise" which is a two-part trivia game. Most of these trivia games offer some lame clip from the film you've already seen as a reward for jumping through the hoops, but not here. Win the first part and you get a modeled train stunt that was considered but not actually filmed, and winning the second part will get you the real subtitles to the Chinese drinking game Chan and Wilson play during the film. During the film itself you only get "gibberish" describing what they are saying from the captions; win the game and find out just what they were doing. A music video of "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah" from Uncle Kracker comes next; a nice inventive play off of the barroom scene from the film, but obviously choreographed just for the video with both Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan playing along. The theatrical trailer completes the bonus features. I should mention there are outtakes as well, that are included at the end of every Jackie Chan picture with the credits. Some of them were quite funny.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One "extra" I won't be touting with this disc is the forced preview trailers before you can even get to the main menu. I don't review those, and don't consider them extras. If they want them to be considered extras, then put them in the Bonus Features section and don't make me skip past them just to watch the movie! DVD is not VHS, and I hope Disney will finally realize that. We LIKE the ability to go wherever we want with DVD without having to rewind or fast-forward. This disc was particularly egregious, as I had to hit my chapter skip button SIX times to get past all their promotional crap. That's to finally see the main menu. The montages we're seeing cropping up on Fox and Universal discs are bad enough, but those are just one skip. I was so maddened by this disc I almost decided not to review it or to recommend no one buy it. Disney, it is time to quit treating us like sheep, and put the trailers in the bonus features, where most likely people will watch them and not be angry at you when they do so.
Moving on to the film…it isn't perfect. I really thought that one scene needed to be put back in, and a couple other scenes didn't work as well for me and I thought could have been trimmed instead. There are a couple holes in the story and a joke or two that doesn't pay off because of the way it was trimmed for time and pacing. It didn't need much, and this is a minor complaint.
Despite this one maddening aspect of this disc, I have to recommend it. The movie is very funny, fast moving, and witty. The disc is excellent in the picture, sound, and supplement areas. Find it as cheap as you can, since Disney still charges a bit more for their discs, but this one is worth having.
Disney is convicted of wasting my time with needless promotion forced upon me before allowing me to watch the film I paid for. Sentence reduced to a fine for doing such a good job on the disc in every other area. The film, director, and the stars are utterly acquitted.
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