After the halfhearted Rush Hour 2 and dismal Tuxedo, Jackie Chan returns to form in his best film in almost a decade. A lavish adventure set mostly in Victorian London, Shanghai Knights has the pacing and action of Chan's classic Hong Kong films, but with the polish and production values of a Hollywood project. Add Owen Wilson's offbeat comedy, and Shanghai Knights has the chance to be a breakout hit.
A prologue set in Beijing pits the evil Lord Nelson Rathbone (Aidan Gillen), tenth in line to the British throne, against Chon Lin (Fann Wong), daughter of the murdered guardian of the imperial seal. Lin follows Rathbone and the seal to London, appealing to her brother Chon Wang (Chan) for help. Chon, a sheriff in Nevada, tracks down his former sidekick Roy O'Bannon (Wilson) in New York. Their money wasted on a zeppelin scheme, Roy and Chon must stow away on an ocean liner to get to London.
After falling victim to a Cockney street urchin named Charlie (Aaron Johnson), the partners learn from Scotland Yard detective Artie Doyle (Thomas Fisher) that Lin faces trial for trying to murder Rathbone. Roy's plan is to crash Rathbone's ball celebrating Queen Victoria's (Gemma Jones) jubilee. At the ball Chon sees Wu Chan (Donnie Yen), the emperor's bastard son, and begins to piece together Rathbone's scheme to murder the Royal Family and assume the throne. Chon, Roy and the escaped Lin confront the villains during a midnight fireworks celebration, culminating in a knockdown-dragout fight ranging from barges in the Thames to the face of Big Ben.
Largely tongue-in-cheek after a somber opening, Shanghai Knights gets a big boost from Owen Wilson's 19th-century slacker. Overbearing at times, he still scores enough laughs to keep the story moving. But Shanghai Knights is really Chan's show. He's made movies like this before, notably Project A, but never with these production values and special effects. Generally leaving the acting to others, he concentrates on tightly timed and choreographed stunts that set the standard for movie action. Martial-arts fans will delight in his fight with Iron Monkey star Donnie Yen, their first time together onscreen. But even those who don't like kung fu can't help but be impressed by Chan's willingness to throw himself over, under and through props and sets with reckless abandon. Like the best silent clowns, Chan earns his laughs and gasps by ingenuity as well as daring. Watch how he uses a collection of antique vases to disarm one opponent, or a library ladder to take out four others, and you're seeing first-class knockabout farce delivered by one of the best practitioners in the world.