Everything you want and expect happens in "Shanghai Noon," the new Jackie Chan comedy set in the 1880s west, and yet nothing -- or almost nothing -- works quite right. What does work, and wonderfully, is Owen Wilson, as Roy O'Bannon, a thoughtful train robber who deals easily with questions that range from existential angst to satisfying whorehouses full of attractive women. Beginning with a delicious script by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, he adds to every line a wit and depth that harks back to the screwball comedies of the thirties, and he shows how well he would do today in a more sophisticated film than this one.
What doesn't work is the way Jackie Chan's physical prowess is presented, and the reason is evident if you do what director Tom Dey should have done before shooting -- simply compare "Shanghai Noon" with any of the Hong Kong films Chan made before coming to the United States. In those films, which he directed himself, the set-pieces of fights and escapes are shot in one or two long takes, with the camera moving to follow the action, so that we see all the blows, twists, and turns as they happen in real time. They are all the more believable, and witty, and exciting because of that. Here, Mr. Dey has misunderstood the way in which Chan achieved those effects, and so he cuts from camera angle to camera angle many times in each fight sequence, in a kind of MTV approach, which simply vitiates the astonishing power of Chan's work and turns him into another stunt man.
The film's story is simple but serviceable. Chan (Chon Wang, and pronounced by Americans as John Wayne, with comments that that's no name for a western cowboy) is an Imperial Guard who's given the task of returning kidnapped Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu, with hardly anything to do here) to China. She's been taken to Carson City, Nevada by the evil Lo Fong (Roger Yuan). Chon Wang and O'Bannon team up to find her, get the gold (yes, there's a trunkful of gold here), and bring her back.
There are a number of inside jokes, including the evil Marshal Van Cleef (Xander Berkeley), who wears the jacket and hat that Lee Van Cleef used to sport in Sergio Leone's 1960s westerns, and every cliché that the writers could shoehorn in has been added, from the overtrained horse to the drinking game in adjoining bathtubs to the Indian wedding ceremony. Most of them work just fine; what a shame that they misplaced Jackie Chan.