by Ed Symkus

At this point in his career, Owen Wilson has become a sort of Jeff Spicoli character, albeit without the haze of marijuana smoke that surrounded Sean Penn in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

In this sequel to the smash film, Shanghai Noon, Wilson buddies up with Jackie Chan as a couple of off-kilter denizens of the Wild West. Chan is charming, and he still hasn't slowed down in the chopping-kicking-spinning-jumping department. For the second installment, Chan's character, Chon Wang, has become a sheriff out in Nevada. Wilson is hilarious playing soft-hearted cad Roy O'Bannon, who abandons Chon and pretends to live the high life in New York City.

Before long, it's revealed that he has squandered the fortune the two men made in the first film. Now he has a "career" as a waiter and gigolo. One of the funniest running gags here involves the fact that Roy never shuts up. No matter what the situation, he has lots to say. Even underwater.

Chon and Roy find themselves back together again when Chon shows up in New York one day asking for his share of the (nonexistent) money. A rather brutal prologue set in China's Forbidden City shows Chon's sister being beaten up and his father being killed by some thugs. Chon is in New York now because he's on his way to London, where his sister has followed their father's killer.

For a comedy, the film has some very serious plot elements, laced with murder and mayhem; the first fight is incredibly vicious. But the script is balanced out by a lot of goofy slapstick, into which territory it eventually ends up. Most of the ensuing fights are less vicious than comic.

When Chon -- the voice of reason -- and Roy -- the blowhard -- finally get to London, it's like deja vu all over again with the Beverly Hillbillies: We get clashing cultures, comic misunderstandings, the whole bag of tricks.

Initially, this is a fish-out-of-water story. With scenes jumping to England, everything gets magnified, and the fish are even further out of the water. It's also where the film gets slightly draggy. It's funny -- the first couple of times -- when Roy bad-mouths the Brits simply for being Brits. But the dialogue has him hammering that fact home too often.

On the other hand, the anachronistic music -- the same kind that first energized, then bogged down A Knight's Tale -- works quite well here. It's fun to hear Roger Miller singing "England Swings" and The Who doing "Magic Bus." And it's a hoot when Chon talks about one day having a family and naming his kids Vera, Chuck and Dave. (For those of you who don't get that, you might want to check out a certain album by the name of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.). Anyone into nostalgia should be attentive to the music in the scene near the start when Chon is reunited with Roy. It's from the soundtracks of the Little Rascals films, played here by the Beau Hunks.

The Knights story eventually involves the good guys catching up with British political hopeful and all-around murderous bad guy, Lord Rathbone (Aidan Gillan), who eventually hooks up with another of his ilk, Wu Yip (Donnie Yen). Things turn into a sort of 19th-century James Bond adventure, at least the part where our heroes try to thwart power-hungry evil people. But most of if it consists of either broad comic sequences or chances for Chan to show his stuff. And there are endlessly inventive strings of stunts for him and whoever is opposite him to do just that. Chan also gets to display some of his acting range, most notably in a scene where he has to confront his father's murderer without letting him know who he is. But it's Wilson who has the script's best lines. He delivers an enjoyable, high-energy, one-note performance.

Two other pluses: Fann Wong, who plays Chon's sister Lin, is an attractive and graceful whirl of action. And no film has featured a better Stonehenge gag since This Is Spinal Tap. But the real sell here is the perfect screen teaming of Chan and Wilson. They work even better together this time than in the original. And that's good news, because with their improved chemistry and the requisite happy ending (along with the big money this film is going to make), there's no doubt that Part III is in the works. These Shanghai nights will see another day.

Publication date: 02/06/03

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