If nothing else, because there's nothing else to this movie, Shanghai Knights allows Jackie Chan, he of the halting dialogue and poetic movement, to pay direct homage to his idols. He hangs from the arms of Big Ben, dangling from the stories-tall clock like Harold Lloyd in 1923's Safety Last; he tangles with a little tramp who, by film's end, makes himself known as Charlie Chaplin (years before he was born, but whatever); he romps with Scotland Yard detective Artie Doyle, father of Sherlock Holmes, whom Buster Keaton would play in 1924's Sherlock, Jr. The ghosts of Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin have always hovered over Chan, especially in the Hollywood outings so dependent upon silent-film slapstick to compensate for Chan's cue-card English, but here they sit heavy on his shoulder and nod their skulls in approval, especially after so drab and messy an outing as last year's The Tuxedo, in which the 48-year-old Chan confessed, much to his chagrin, to using stunt doubles. There are, however, still grins to be gotten from his kicks and chops and swordplay and balletic handling of whatever's-handy props, such as the umbrellas that cue the soundtrack to spin the title song from Singin' in the Rain. There's fight left in Chan yet.
Only the man's deft and dangerous punch never delivers the punchline; this sequel to 2000's Shanghai Noon can no more find a joke than Owen Wilson can deliver a line without sounding as if he just took a toke. The movie exists not because it must, not because its writers (Smallville creators Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, responsible for the first movie) came bearing amusingly fresh jokes and fleshed-out characters and inventive situations, but because any Chan movie that makes money inevitably spawns a franchise. Hence the forthcoming Rush Hour 3, a title that sounds more like a threat.
If you remember Shanghai Noon, and more likely you recall the dozens of horse operas from which Millar and Gough looted like bandits on a rampage, this one's little different, save for two things: It takes place in 1887 England, permitting copious jokes about rotten teeth, the Queen's jubilee celebration, cars driving on the wrong side of the road (years before automobiles were on London streets, mind you), the Brits' losing the Revolutionary War, the stoicism of Buckingham Palace guards and awful food; there's not a single laugh-out-loud joke to be found in its attempt to wring still more humor out of the culture-clash scenario that's become a staple of Chan's made-in-the-U.S. buddy pictures.
Would that the filmmakers -- including clumsy director David Dobkin, replacing Tom Dey -- had built their film from the film's smallest, yet smartest, gag, which is treated as cavalierly as a bit of trash stuck to a boot heel. Wilson's Roy O'Bannon is first seen in the film on a book's back-cover photo; he's made up to look like Mark Twain, and he has written a novel titled Roy O'Bannon vs. the Mummy, in which he's transformed the plot of the first movie into a best-selling supernatural thriller. (The filmmakers think us too dim to notice it's Wilson in the picture; the "joke" isn't revealed till well into the film, by which point we're already well past it.) Everyone in the film seems to possess a copy of the novel, in which Roy has reduced Chan's character, Chon Wang, to a bit player -- a helpless sidekick called the Shanghai Kid, as he was known in Shanghai Noon. To make a name for himself, Roy has spent a fortune, engaged in revisionist history and betrayed his old friend in the process.
But Millar and Gough have no interest in offering wry commentary about the fleeting and corrupting nature of fame; they've no time for a story about men who use and abuse each other beneath the flimsy guise of friendship. (Chon and Roy have never seemed to care for one another; at every turn, one is bad-mouthing the other to someone else.) They would instead regurgitate a familiar plot: Roy, Chon and his little sister (Fann Wong, replacing Lucy Liu in essentially the same role as warrior-goddess) set out to avenge the death of Chon's father, who was murdered by two men (British actor Aidan Gillen, looking like a young Alec Baldwin, and Chinese actor Donnie Yen) hellbent on overthrowing their respective homelands. But why would the writers bother with narrative when the story is just something that kills time, and brain cells, between feats and fists of fury?
What's most distressing is that Wilson -- co-star and co-author of Bottle Rocket and The Royal Tenenbaums, films of authentic voice and genuine emotion -- keeps showing up in movies that barely feel written at all. His is quickly becoming a résumé of distressing mediocrity, of multimillion-dollar paychecks doled out for food-stamp movies. How else to explain his involvement in Armageddon, Behind Enemy Lines, The Haunting and, most recently and most unfortunately, I-Spy, except to say there's long green to be made from appearing in movies short on everything?