19 May 2013

BLOCKBUSTER HISTORY: PARDON ME, BUT YOUR TITLE IS A DAMNABLE PUN

Every week this summer, we'll be taking an historical tour of the Hollywood blockbuster by examining an older film that is in some way a spiritual precursor to one of the weekend's wide releases. This week: there has not been one second since the title was announced that I have felt anything but dull rage about the name of Star Trek Into Darkness, especially with that despicable lack of a colon. With a more robust Star Trek marathon in the wings, and since the theme "I Will Fucking Punch Your Lens Flares in the Cock" would just take us right back to the 2009 Star Trek reboot, it seemed alright to stretch a point.

Almost as ancient as the buddy cop movie itself, is the transplanted buddy cop movie; in which two comically mismatched heroes bicker and snipe while fighting a totally generic bad guy, but instead of doing it contemporary Los Angeles, they've been removed to some wacky genre or setting. The standard-bearer for this kind of thing is unquestionably the 1997 buddy cop movie with aliens!, Men in Black, and that's maybe even the best example of its generation of filmmaking, but there are many, many other examples of the things, in a wide gulf of quality.

Here, for example we have buddy cop movie in the Old West! with martial arts! Shanghai Noon, with the bickering heroes played by Owen Wilson and Jackie Chan, making only his second U.S. film: the first, Rush Hour, was a more generically classic buddy cop movie with Chris Tucker, and it does well to point that out right at the onset, because for all of the problems that Shanghai Noon has, it has one of them to the same degree as Rush Hour, let alone its gigantically awful sequels. If that means that I'm inclined to overvalue Shanghai Noon simply for not being outrageously bad, well, the critic is a human being like anybody else.

The ephemeral plot begins in 19th Century China, where Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) is being forced by her father the emperor to marry an unpleasant nobleman, and in a fit of anachronistic feminism, she arranges with the court's American tutor, Andrews (Jason Connery), to spirit her into that land of freedom and democracy. In a stunning twist, he ends up betraying her, turning her over to former imperial guard Lo Fong (Roger Yuan), who has made his business in the States by selling out his countrymen into virtual slavery working on the railroad. He's abducted the princess for money and revenge, and so he sends back to China a ransom, which is to be delivered by the emperor's three greatest warriors - and, tagging along, hapless guard Chon Wang (Chan), mostly on the hopes that some American outlaw will kill him and make things easier on everybody else.

There is, meanwhile, an entirely separate plot, in which hapless American outlaw Roy O'Bannon (Wilson) is losing control over his gang, with the psychopathic Texan Wallace (Walton Goggins) having recently joined in, and solving every problem with a bit too liberal an application of gunfire. It so happens one fine day that O'Bannon's gang is robbing the very same train that the Chinese guards are riding on, and Chon's beloved uncle ends up dead as a result. So it is that, in due course, Chon and O'Bannon both end up stranded in the Nevada desert, with a healthy measure of intense dislike for one another: it's not until they end up trapped in jail together, from which they are freed by Chon's accidental Sioux wife Falling Leaves (Brandon Merrill), who arrives in the plot via a farcical complication that feels enough like a parody of The Searchers that it might actually be deliberate; the film has quite its fair share of references to classical Westerns, including a villain, Van Cleef (Xander Berkeley), named after the co-star of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly among other films.

At this point, Chon and O'Bannon finally decide to drop their feud and become allies, staying just ahead of the law while hunting down Lo Fong and saving the princess. This, then, brings me to what is easily the biggest flaw with the movie on its own terms (rather than the terms of cinema as an art form; for of course, you hardly need me to point out that a Western buddy cop movie called Shanghai Noon isn't looking to tap into the Resnais or Bresson crowds): at 110 minutes all told, it takes almost exactly half of the film's running time before it sets Chan and Wilson in the same room and gives them more than a few lines of dialogue to banter with. There are really only two things that the film promises, one of them being the wacky antics as the drawling American and the heavily accented, slapsticky Asian have to fight crime together, the other being Chan's acrobatic stunt work. For it to take almost a full hour before the first of these even starts to make its presence felt is a betrayal of the Buddy Cop rulebook; the ur-text of the genre in its modern form, Lethal Weapon, only gives us one scene to establish each of the two protagonists before throwing them together, where Shanghai Noon has an act and a half. And frankly, Shanghai Noon isn't a good enough movie to hold attention for that long: the plot is obviously perfunctory, and Tom Dey's direction utterly quotidian and in some places actively bad (he uses some pretty questionable camera set-ups in filming Chan's various physical exertions).

It's a good thing, then, that Chan's action sequences here do work, because for a long time, that's absolutely the only thing the movie has going for it. This is a fairly empty statement to make, but it's easily the best fighting in any of his American films (which fairly quickly degenerated into family-friendly tosh that didn't exert the aging martial arts star too badly; indeed, assuming from the example of his later films that Shanghai Noon was itself a bouncy family-friendly cartoon, I was thrown to find that it's actually quite naughty-minded in spots), blending the comic and the brutal far more effectively than he'd be able to do again in Hollywood's neutering bosom. Beyond question, you're better off with just about any one of his '90s Hong Kong productions, but equally beyond question, he's able to play here to far better effect than in e.g. Rush Hour 2 or The Tuxedo.

When, eventually, the "Jackie Chan fight scenes peppered throughout a mostly insipid Western comedy" picture morphs into the "Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson toss dialogue at each other" picture, the improvement is massive, though perilously close to too little, too late. At no point does Shanghai Noon fail to subscribe to the most vanilla possible '80s action movie plot tropes, but at least the actors have enough chemistry that the plot seems more like the pretext for a movie that it is, than the driving purpose of a movie that it is far too weak-kneed to be. I will not go s far as to say that the Chan/Wilson pairing is one for the ages, but they're equally silly in different ways, and especially compared to Chan's previous and subsequent teamings with Chris Tucker, the actors' comic tones mesh really well, with no sense of scene-stealing or one-upping each other. You can't get a whole lot less substantial than this, but well-played, friendly banter is tough to do, and Shanghai Noon hits its mark perfectly on that front: the leads are enough fun, and both irreverent to just the perfect degree, that it would be worth watching them plugging through even the most inane nonsense. Which is good, because that's exactly what the film asks them to do.

17 comments:

Thrash Til' Death said...

Haven't seen this one, which is only half negligence on my part. My exposure to Jackie Chan's Hollywood career consists of "Around the World in 80 Days," where he plays second fiddle to Steve Coogan and I count as a guilty pleasure despite the fact I don't believe in guilty pleasures, and about half an hour of "Rush Hour 3," which made off with a fragment of my soul and any desire I had to watch anything Chan post-"Who am I?"

I cannot wait for Chinese Zodiac, in large part because if the trailers are anything to go by, it looks like anyone who tries to defend Jackie's American output with "but he was getting older!" isn't going to have that excuse available any more.

Cody Rice said...

I'm not much of a Star Trek fan at all- I've seen maybe two of the films and a smattering of Next Generation episodes- but from the moment I heard it, I LOVED the title Star Trek Into Darkness.

Normally, I would love a simple, clean numbering system, perfectly demonstrated by the Rocky franchise (til the sixth one fucked it all up). But then the tricky reboot issue comes along. How do we go from Star Trek to Star Trek 12? Or worse yet, Star Trek 2, risking confusion with the Wrath of Khan and pissing off video store clerks worldwide? The films featuring the Next Generation cast side-stepped the issue with Star Trek-colon-cliched subtitle, which is just ugly. Unnecessary punctuation which breaks up any flow the title may have spoken aloud, feeling like two sentences grafted together. Not to mention, the more sequels you make, the more you should fucking number them! Who the fuck knows which comes first, Nemesis or Generations?

The Halloween series, both the first 8 and the Rob Zombie series, manages to do both of these annoying things at once.

And then, Star Trek Into Darkness. A clean, easily said phrase, with no colon that so quickly turns away those weary of sci-fi/nerdtainment. Just two extra words that flow perfectly off the verb, crafting a full, evocative sentence, and giving a pretty clear indication of the thematic content within (or so I've heard- again, not a Star Trek fan). In a perfect world, I would love nothing more than Star Trek no. 1-12, but I can't imagine a better title personally.

StephenM said...

^What that guy said.

Also, I've always loved Shanghai Noon. As you say, easily Chan's best American film, and pretty effortlessly entertaining, I've always found. Chan and Wilson really are a great team. Though Shanghai Knights sucks, of course.

Vilsal said...
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Vilsal said...
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Cody Rice said...

@Vilsal: You're certainly not wrong, and I'm aware this is not an unanimous or even popular opinion, but I still prefer the mystique and simplicity of the un-coloned title, even in the face of grammatical inaccuracy. More pertinently, subtitles in general are a very particular pet peeve of mine, and I'm always pleased to see a title find a way around it.

Tim said...

Well, now I'm just gonna be frustrated that I don't know what happened.

My own take: Star Trek 2 and Star Trek 12 being obviously impossible, I still feel that Star Trek Into Darkness feels like a Wheel of Fortune "Before and After" puzzle than a movie title.

Rebecca said...

Jackie Chan's 2nd U.S. film? Tim, surely you don't forget this one from a few B-Fests ago? I actually do forget the plot entirely. I just remember the reaction when Kristine DeBell appeared a few hours after watching her other movie.

Vilsal said...

I just tried to be a smartass about grammar while tired and messed up. Basically, the title doesn't make sense as a sentence because it lacks a potential subject, unless you want to see it as an imperative: Star-trek into darkness, Kirk! If we treat it as a noun phrase, we run into a lexical problem. A star trek is presumably meant to be understood as a journey to the stars, so how can you be on a journey to the stars into darkness?

By the way, I never realized Shanghai Noon was a pun before reading this yesterday and I'm still cringing.

adampb said...

I also never noticed the pun till now. Oh dear oh dear.

Jeremy said...

The sequel, Shanghai Knights, is pretty fun too, in a live-action cartoon kinda of way. At least, that's how I remember it!

David Greenwood said...

I'm gonna join the consensus in picking Shanghai Noon as the best of Chan's American films. And maybe it's just been a while, but I don't remember being bored for half the movie before Chan meets Wilson. I recall the whole thing being pretty fleet and fun. The fight scenes were as entertaining as usual, and unlike any of Chan's other American films, the comedy was actually really funny ("Did I get ya?" "Nope... but you're gettin' reeeeal close")

I was always partial to Jet Li's films over Jackie Chan's, but Chan's talent cannot be denied. I do love three of his films, one of them being this one.

The second is Drunken Master II (a.k.a. Legend of Drunken Master in the US). The plot and humor are a bit hit or miss, but the fights are the greatest I've ever seen in a martial arts film.

The third is City Hunter, mostly for how bent it all is. This is the film, after all, where Jackie gets thrown into a Street Fighter II arcade cabinet and turns into Chun-Li.

Though truth be told, City Hunter isn't half as fun as Future Cops... but very few movies are.

Thrash Til' Death said...

^Listen to this man.

I'm inclined to agree with Roger Ebert in the proposition that the last twenty minutes of Drunken Master 2 contain not only the best fight scene ever filmed, but the best fight scene even theoretically possible.

I'm generally more a fan of Chan than Li overall. They both have some great films to their name and some awful ones, but even when Chan is surrounded by badness, his affable personality tends to shine through. Jet Li's just boring when he's bad.

David Greenwood said...

Thrash, thanks for the props!

I will certainly agree that Chan's contributions to the world will outlive Li's. Chan is a one-of-a-kind personality, whereas Li is simply a highly capable martial artist with (at times) a commanding screen presence.

That said, Chan's sort of humor/action combo isn't usually my bag, with those aforementioned exceptions. I'm just a big fan of Li's work, and his American work is much more fun on average than Chan's (note that "more fun" does not equal "good").

My favorite Li picture of all is Kiss of the Dragon, though Unleashed / Danny the Dog was also incredible. And as long as I live I will love Cradle 2 The Grave in the most ironic way possible. The amount of CGI that film required to make DMX look like a capable fighter is astounding.

Thrash Til' Death said...

Kiss of the Dragon and Unleashed are both very solid, they hold up a lot better than most western-produced martial-arts flicks. Haven't seen Cradle 2 the Grave, although I choose to believe it must be better than The One!

If you haven't seen them, you should really seek out Fist of Legend and the first Once Upon a Time in China. In my opinion, they're the twin highlights of Li's career and two of the all time great HK action movies.

David Greenwood said...

Fist of Legend was GREAT, though I remain partial to Bruce Lee's original Fist of Fury / Chinese Connection... Though aside from the lack of Bruce, FoL is a much better film.

Jeremy said...

I prefer Chan overall, HUGE Chan mark since I was watching ol' ass VHS tapes of Supercop and Armor of God when I was a kid, but Fist of Legend is awesomeness incarnate. Li will always have my respect for that one.

Plus, he's like the only good thing about LW4