This is the start of what may be a reoccurring feature of sorts, spotlighting the movies that aren't just my favorites, but films that I probably hold in higher esteem than anyone else out there in the critical community. First up is a film that celebrates its tenth-anniversary this very day. I'm speaking not of How To Lose A Guy In Ten Days (which I don't loathe), but rather the wonderful period-set comedy adventure Shanghai Knights. It is a movie that yes, I love probably more than any other critic on Earth. It is one of the few movies that was so damn good and so bloody enjoyable that I intentionally saw it in a theater three times during its first month of theatrical play. It is one of my favorite movies from the last fifteen years and I'd argue that it is a near-perfect version of what it's attempting to be.
It is easily Jackie Chan's best American production and, I'd argue, one of his very best films, period. It is a textbook example of how to do a genre sequel just right. It fully acknowledges that it's a sequel and thus doesn't repeat the same relationship from the first film, in this case the perfectly solid Shanghai Noon. Thus when we return to the world of Chon Wang (Jackie Chan) and Roy O'Bannon (Owen Wilson at his very best), they are good friends, initially happy to see each other after a few years apart. But even before that moment we are treated to the introduction of a truly awesome villain. I'm speaking of course about the evil Rathbone, played by Aidan Gillen with such seething arrogant British menace that I'm surprised my wife doesn't want to sleep with him. If you're going to have a royal villain named Rathbone in a movie like this, he really should make his entrance dressed in black royal garb and wearing a black and red cape. And he should be introduced in the process of killing a major character. Check and check, as Rathbone murders Chang's father while stealing an important scroll, phase one of a genuinely brilliant 'Strangers On a Train'-esque scenario in order to put Rathbone and the equally diabolical Wu Chow (played with utter bad-ass Donnie Yen) in charge of their respective dynasties.
So you've got two awesome villains, one a martial arts god and the other a master swordsman, squaring off against our utterly charming and likeable heroes. So far, so good. But it's not just the leads who get to shine, as the supporting cast gets their moment in the sun as well. Fan Wong plays Jackie's younger sister, and while she technically operates as a would-be love interest for Wilson and an eventual pawn in the evil scheme, she gets her moments of martial arts glory as well, a few solid laughs (she drops the film's one F-bomb in service of a wonderfully clever period-centric joke I won't reveal), and a major role to play in the action climax. Also offering comic support is a very young Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the young orphan who joins up with the heroes. He's an incredibly non-obnoxious kid and he has real chemistry with Owen Wilson as they trade insults throughout. And Tom Fisher is equally winning as the local Scotland Yard inspector, Artie Doyle, who ends up assisting the mismatched duo in their adventures. He also gets the funniest line in the film, an offhand comment about how far away Rathbone is in terms of being in line for the throne (Rathbone's scheme involves an attempt to King Ralph-himself to the crown). One of the keys to the film's success is just how gosh-darn likable all of these people are.
While the villains aren't likable per-se, they are unquestionably cool, something that too many would-be blockbusters forget. And the heroic side of the equation is filled with charming eccentrics, people you genuinely want to succeed. Jackie Chan is terrific here, both in terms of his usual martial arts mojo and in terms of actual acting. Aside from his should-be-Oscar-nominated turn in The Karate Kid, this is easily his best English-language performance. Owen Wilson is hilarious too, and the film doesn't make the mistake that the Rush Hour sequels did by attempting to to level the action playing field. He's not a fighter and the film doesn't pretend otherwise. Speaking of fighting, the film contains a handful of absolutely fantastic action sequences. You've got an early bit directly inspired by Keystone Cops and another patterned off of Singing In the Rain. This film uses its period setting to play around with the popular critical notion that Jackie Chan is basically a mix of silent comedian and action star. Yes this is a case where subtext becomes text, but the results still rank a mid-film fight scene set in a library involving revolving doors and breakable valuables, the expected face-off between Chan and Yen, as well as the best cinematic sword fight since... uh... The Empire Strikes Back? The climactic showdown, high atop Big Ben (which is where climactic sword-fights should darn-well take place, thank you) is one of the best sword-fights in modern cinematic history.
Aside from the wonderful choreography on display, what's shocking about both fight scenes is that Jackie Chan is easily outmatched in both of them, and his eventual triumphs is more a matter of sheer luck and/or sheer determination. Both villains get appropriately spectacular demises, and everyone lives happily ever after. Because it's just that kind of movie. In the end, I love Shanghai Knights because it is *that* kind of movie done superbly. It is a rousing action adventure with fantastic action scenes that are rooted in both choreography and character. It has genuinely likable and colorful heroes and genuinely terrific and dynamic villains who look great while being evil (again... capes!). It uses its 1800's London setting as an excuse to gently rib the time period while saying to hell with historical accuracy while also operating as a kind of meditation on the very origins of film making. Writers Alfred Gough and Miles Miller give real attention to dialogue while building a narrative that actually makes far more sense then it doesn't. Director David Dobkin delivers a gorgeous looking widescreen adventure while crafting action that you can actually see and appreciate. Everyone is wonderful and everything works in this delightful genre entry.
I spend a lot of time defending genre or big-studio confections from the automatic assumption that they are dumb and/or lazy. Movies like this ennoble that goal. If the film has a 'point' beyond its worth as entertainment, it's as a charming celebration of the oldest tropes of film making, showing how important it is to get the basics right. It's a celebration of the idea that the most special effects are characters who you genuinely like and root for when the fists and swords start flying. Supremely successful pictures like Shanghai Knights are the kind that makes film fans out of the youngest would-be movie nerds, high-flying popcorn entertainment so skillfully constructed that it becomes a kind of genuine art. There's a moment towards the end of the third act where Owen Wilson says something to the effect of "This is a hell of a damn adventure we're on and I'm having an absolute ball with you." It's that kind of infectious spirit that pervades the entire picture, and it's the kind of sentiment that should be shared by anyone who loves the wonderful example of old-school *movie* making.