If you can tolerate the awful punning title without gagging,
Jackie Chan’s western action-comedy should offer you a fairly
good time; most of the picture’s humor is about on the same
rather sophomoric level of wit. Though the screenplay is
structurally messy, the cast makes the most of the opportunities
it affords and the makers have given the piece a good look,
with some gorgeous scenery and spiffy cinematography. The
result is a flick that has its longeurs and is sometimes
chaotically plotted, but nonetheless provides a reasonably good
reason to grab some popcorn, put up your feet and spend two
hours in air-conditioned summer comfort.

Like Chan’s earlier Hollywood effort “Rush Hour,” this is a
comic buddy story, but this time it’s set in nineteenth-century
Nevada. The high-flying Hong Kong star plays Chon Wang (a
moniker which gives rise to the inevitable mispronunciation in
America), a somewhat inept member of the Chinese imperial guard
who’s enamoured of Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu; and, once more,
the potential mispronunciation is all too obvious). When the
princess is kidnapped and taken to America, Chon is reluctantly
appointed by the emperor to be one of those sent to pay the
ransom and retrieve her. In predictable fashion, however, the
group runs into a bunch of train robbers and Chon is separated
from his fellows, eventually taking up with the erstwhile
leader of the bandits, Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson), a talkative,
self-promoting would-be gunfighter. The two team up to rescue
the princess and (Roy hopes) profit from the transaction, all
the while trying to avoid both bad guys and bloodthirsty
lawmen–and, of course, bonding in the process.

The plot is ridiculous, of course, but it’s merely a hook on
which to hang a succession of gags and action set-pieces, often
intermingled in Chan’s typical fashion. There are more brawls,
narrow escapes and last-minute rescues than one can count, and
often they’re linked together in only the most tenuous fashion.
(When the writers are stumped for a way out of a particularly
perilous predicament, they regularly resort to a sudden
intervention by the lovely Brandon Merrill, playing an Indian
maiden assigned to Chon as a wife-to-be in recognition of his
courage in saving a young member of the tribe; where she
hides herself during the rest of the running-time isn’t made
clear.) Interspersed among the big moments are quieter
dialogue sequences where Chan and Wilson can do the verbal
equivalent of a soft-shoe routine, with loquacious Roy rambling
on about western conventions and his own exaggerated talents
as his Chinese partner looks on in amazement (as in “Rush Hour,”
the pairing has been cannily constructed to allow Chan, whose
English is still rudimentary, to remain largely mute while his
co-star carries the ball).

“Shanghai Noon” thus resembles a comic-and-action revue more
than a coherently structured story; but though it shambles
along in an absurdly episodic fashion, the individual bits are,
more often than not, cheekily entertaining. That’s partially
because first-time helmer Tom Dey shows a sprightly approach to
the material and takes full advantage of the impressive
locations and the skill of cinematographer Dan Mindel. But it’s
mostly because Chan and Wilson play nicely off one another.
Chan, of course, is hardly a great actor, but his affable
presence as a fairly ordinary fellow forced to show off his
surprising abilities continues to shine onscreen; Wilson,
meanwhile, uses his slightly goofy, laid-back persona to good
effect here, providing an effective contrast to Chan’s
hyperactivity. Liu and Merrill are charming as the two women
in their lives (the final couplings among them are determined
rather arbitrarily, but the outcome is satisfactory). The
remainder of the cast, especially villains Roger Yuan and
Xander Berkeley, go through their paces efficiently, and there
are amusing brief turns from Walton Goggins, as an out-of-
control robber, and Russel Badger as a Sioux chief.

“Shanghai Noon” is no masterpiece, but it shares with its
star a good-natured desire to please which wins one over in
the end. And when compared with last year’s far more expensive
and far less enjoyable attempt at a western comedy (the
ill-fated “Wild Wild West”), it looks ever better.