(Viewed 8/15/2015, available on Netflix)
Shanghai Noon is an entertaining buddy romp that presents the Wild West through a unique lens. The main character is neither white nor American. I’d say that Shanghai Noon makes for a post-modern Western movie that deconstructs the genre, though I would hesitate to say that this is an intentional subtext, even as the movie delves into the treatment of Chinese laborers on the Intercontinental Railroad. Jackie Chan stars as Chon Wang (say it out loud . . .), trying to rescue the damsel in distress, and Owen Wilson sidekicks as Roy O’Bannon, an outlaw with an image problem.
It’s a funny and energetic movie. I trust Jackie Chan implicitly with action and humor, and he delivers. Owen Wilson brings his regular brand of self-aware goofiness and performs solidly here. The main humorous setup is along the vein of Culture Clash at the OK Corral with a side helping of Buddy Comedy, and I think that it works out well as Chon Wang explores the tropes and narratives of the cinematic Old West and Roy O’Bannon tries his hardest to not learn anything about himself.
Shanghai Noon utilizes Jackie Chan’s kinetic brand of physical humor to great effect, leaving you both impressed and laughing. He and Owen Wilson make a successful odd couple, and their relationship is the most important one in the movie. It’s clear that O’Bannon thinks that he’s the protagonist, and it’s important to his characterization that he keeps this perspective even in the face of massive evidence that he is indeed the sidekick. I wonder if there is subtext here that captures the feelings of non-Americans in a wider sense, that Americans think that everything is about them.
The romantic relationships fall weirdly flat though, as Chon Wang accidentally marries a nameless Native American woman (while blackout drunk, not ok, all right?) who silently follows the boys around and keeps them out of trouble, then eventually takes up with O’Bannon. At the end of the movie, Princess Pei Pei inexplicably falls in love with Chon Wang and presumably gives up her life of royalty to live in a frontier town as a sheriff’s wife. This romantic side is so strange to me because the women are presented as powerful on their own, and then just seem link up with the men because it makes for tidy ending. The Native woman takes on the classical Western roll of the Man with No Name and saves the day time after time as Chon Wang and O’Bannon bumble along. Princess Pei Pei is noble, strong, courageous and self determined as she tries to balance her own desires and her role as a leader. Were the romantic subplots really necessary?
I’d recommend this movie on its own merits as fun and entertaining, perfect for a bowl of popcorn and not having to think about anything. I think that you could also work it into any list of Jackie Chan movies since it’s a good example of an American production that fully utilizes his skills in both action and comedy. It would also be of particular interest to anyone looking at deconstructive or post-modern Westerns, or looking at comic Westerns as a genre.