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Shanghai Knights

Everybody loves a party. But giving one a loose plot and throwing it on film can be a dicey proposition. Frank Sinatra's Rat Pack did it; Burt Reynolds and his stuntman pals did it a few times, too, and with both groups, the result was pretty lazy filmmaking.

Maybe the secret is in just focusing on your hosts, like Bob Hope and Bing Crosby did in their Road movies. Have fun, but make sure your audience still knows what's going on, and that they're having fun, too.

As unlikely as it may seem, Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson understand that secret. In their latest (and hopefully not last) vehicle together, Shanghai Knights, they may not be making deathless art, but they are bringing fun to the screen. Sometimes, despite the violence, there's even some joy.

Quickly dispensing with leftover plot from Shanghai Noon, this new entry establishes Chon Wang (Chan) and Roy O'Bannon (Wilson) as having moved on with their lives. Chon serves as sheriff, while Roy has gone off to New York to capitalize on his success as the hero of a series of dime novels.

In reality, Roy has hit hard times but still works his mojo on the ladies, showing them a new meaning for "French Toast."

When Wang's sister Chon Lin (the stunning Fann Wong) sends him a letter telling him that their father has been killed and she's tracked the murderer to London, adventure is in the offing. And since Roy has squandered both their fortunes, the would-be cowboy hero has to offer himself in collateral.

In London, the duo cross paths with legends, having no concept of their impact. Jack The Ripper? A slight annoyance (though outtakes indicate he may have originally played a larger part). Sherlock Holmes? Just one more O'Bannon improvisation.

They have bigger fish to fry. In a nod to Hitchcock's Strangers On a Train, two murderers have criss-crossed their targets in order to overthrow the monarchies of England and China, with the Chon siblings stuck in the middle.

But if you're looking for tight plotting, you won't find it here. Instead, the plot just moves everybody along from set piece to set piece, without much respect for historical accuracy.

What this movie does respect is its own influences. Director David Dobkin works from an Alfred Gough and Miles Millar (Smallville) script that is clever enough to keep our attention, and loose enough to let Chan and Wilson pay homage to their roots.

Wilson even recreates a moment out of Bottle Rocket, his film debut. Not necessarily a stretch, as he pretty much plays the same character from film to film, but if you haven't seen Bottle Rocket, stop reading this and rent it right now. NOW!

At last, Chan gets to explicitly acknowledge the American masters that gave him his style. In an early New York fight scene, he faces down the Keystone Kops with all the stone-faced gravitas of his idol, Buster Keaton, and with all the delirious physical energy to boot. He sneaks in nods to Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, too.

Later, the movie doesn't even try to disguise the tributes. When Chan begins fighting with an umbrella, "Singing In The Rain" swells up on the soundtrack, making one wonder just what Gene Kelly might have done with martial arts skills in his repertoire.

Yes, Chan has slowed down a bit, but Dobkin hides it well. Unlike The Tuxedo, which awkwardly tried to get tricky and thus showed the seams, Shanghai Knights ambles even in its action scenes, and Chan shows that he still has it.

Kids, don't take what Shanghai Knights tells you about history as fact. Anachronisms abound, but the movie is so naked about it that it's hard to let it get in your way. By throwing out the history books, anything can happen. And does. If Roy and Chon Wen need a car for a getaway, they can have it.

A solid sixties soundtrack gives the project the feel of films like What's New, Pussycat? and Casino Royale, with slightly more coherence. When a Victorian orgy has The Who in the background, it's pretty obvious that these guys are only pretending to be in the 1800's. Heck, almost all of O'Bannon's schtick with chicks is pretty much 1990's surfer talk, but with all the desperate obviousness of a stoned Bob Hope.

And if you believe that a 19th century Chinese woman who barely speaks English would really be charmed by lines like "you have a great body. There. I've said it," then welcome to the fantasy. Just don't try it at home.

Hope and Crosby played this fast and loose with reality, too, and it worked for them. If Chan and Wilson feel played out in the 19th century, they should shift their partnership to another time and it will hold up. My only request is that they bring Fann Wong along as their Dorothy Lamour.

The January releases were pretty numbing. Shanghai Knights offers fun and little more, but quite honestly, we need what it has right now.

What's it worth? $7

Derek McCaw

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