"Shanghai Noon"

In his best American movie, Jackie Chan finally meets his match.

Published December 4, 2000 8:00PM (EST)

"Shanghai Noon"
Directed by Tom Dey
Starring Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Lucy Liu
Touchstone Home Video; widescreen anamorphic (2.35:1 aspect ratio) and full screen (1.33:1 aspect ratio)
Extras: Cast and crew commentary, making-of featurettes, deleted scenes, trailer, music video

It's taken Hollywood a while to figure out what to do with Hong Kong action star Jackie Chan. They've tried subtitling and dubbing him, recutting him and just keeping him quiet. Chan was largely wasted in his last U.S. outing, "Rush Hour," in which he played second banana to the massively annoying Chris Tucker. In "Shanghai Noon," though, Hollywood finally got it right.

Director Tom Dey says on the DVD that by placing Chan in the Old West, he was able to play to the star's strengths, allowing Chan to mug and double-take in a classic fish-out-of-water scenario. "It's like a bad suit," Dey says. "It touches him everywhere and fits him nowhere."

And it's a lot of fun. Chan is a minor imperial guard in China's Forbidden City dispatched to retrieve Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) from the American West, where she has fled to avoid marriage to an unworthy suitor. In fact, the princess has fallen into the clutches of bad guys, and a royal ransom is demanded for her return.

The setup is similar to "Red Sun," a quirky 1971 western starring Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune. But "Shanghai Noon" stakes out its own territory with the inspired casting of Owen Wilson as a sensitive, slightly dim-witted outlaw who becomes Chan's partner. The two have great chemistry, and Wilson's laconic charm turns out to be a perfect foil for Chan. Tucker and Chan in "Rush Hour" resembled Abbott and Costello; Chan and Wilson are more like Laurel and Hardy, each alternately playing straight man to the other's stooge.

The movie offers up few surprises, but that's OK. The pleasure is in watching Chan and Wilson react to each twist. "I wanted to take my favorite scenes, my favorite clichés, from old westerns and put Jackie Chan in the middle," Dey says. The result is a hodgepodge of railroads, saloons, Indians and gun battles, punctuated with some really nifty fight scenes. Chan, as always, moves like a cross between Bruce Lee and Buster Keaton, and dazzles with his physical control.

Wilson and Dey team up for the DVD's audio commentary, most of which consists of them talking about how cool it is working with Chan, who kept things loose on the set by hosting karaoke parties for the crew. Chan recorded commentary at a different studio and pipes up between the two in odd places. Behind-the-scenes featurettes delve into the making of the movie, as well as Chan's comedic roots and the choreography of his stunts, which are generally less demanding in "Shanghai Noon" than in his Hong Kong outings; he barely gets hurt in the mandatory outtakes at the end. The picture on the disc is sharp and the sound is terrific.

Clint Eastwood learned by trial and error that to do comedies, he needed to pair himself with a perky woman or an animal. In Chan's case, at least to reach an American audience, he needs to buddy up with someone who can remain low-key when the punches and kicks fly. It took long enough, but he finally found his match.

By David Lazarus

David Lazarus covers business and technology for the San Francisco Chronicle.

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