For one brief moment, with "Shanghai Noon," we thought that the partnership of Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson was a marriage made in heaven. Opposites attracting, yinning and yanging, master of the physical tied to master of the verbal. But something bad has happened to both men and I think it has to do with a weak director, in this case David Dobkin, whose only other film was "Clay Pigeons," a grade-B murder mystery from 1998.
The bad thing that's happened to Owen Wilson here is that he's lost that great sidearm delivery of his lines, a delivery that worked so well in "Rushmore," "Meet the Parents," and "The Royal Tenenbaums." It was a delivery that synthesized his characters in a turn of phrase (most of which he wrote anyway), an evenly modulated voice, a blank look that gave us time to see into his brain as his character thought through things. But in "Shanghai Knights," which in general shows the haste of putting together a sequel without bothering to take it seriously, his character is all over the place and his lines have no wit, no pace, no personality behind them. It's part of a director's job to focus his or her actors on the task before them, to insist that they stay on task and not wander through their roles. Granted that Wilson's lines here are weak (he didn't write them), he has the ability to pull them off. But he doesn't, and we have to blame his director.
And poor Jackie Chan has met an even worse fate. We watch his films to see the master of physical comedy at work: the ingenious use of sets and props, the skill of combat, the delicious humor behind the battles. But here he is just a stick figure whipping around through scenes that have been undercranked in the camera to make them look faster in the theatre. If you look at Chan's Hong Kong films you'll see how carefully every stunt is set up, how one leads into another, how beautifully choreographed they are (he directed all his own stunts). Everything was planned to let his truly delicious physical wit come through.
In "Shanghai Knights" he is a blur of windmilling arms and legs and swords or other props, with no sense of pace or timing, no setup for a punchline. In his own films Chan never made a false move on camera; there was always a reason for every pratfall, every stunt, every comic or dangerous moment. In this film it's as though he was told, "Just spin around, kick out, jump from here to there, jump back." It's obvious no time was spent in creating or designing his stunts. And as much as we love him, without them he really doesn't have the range as an actor to hold our attention.
Both Wilson and Chan are strong movie presences, accustomed to holding the screen. It is obvious to any director exactly what their strengths and weaknesses are. The director earns his pay by using them to the best effect. But in this film there was no guiding hand, no one strong enough to impose a style on the film, no one to take the time to stage the physical stunts so they would work properly. It's a rare skill to direct comedy so that it's funny, and unfortunately Mr. Dobkin doesn't have it.