[Written for Seattle Post-Intelligencer]
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. A Chinese guy wearing Indian war paint, a braided waist-length ponytail, and a blue silk robe walks into an Old West saloon … and it’s Jackie Chan! Trust me, it’s funny. Cowboys snicker, barmaids stand agog, and human dynamo Jackie transforms a simple barfight into a night at the Chinese Opera.
Jackie is Chon Wang, a boyishly sincere Forbidden City Palace Guard in love with unattainable Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu in an unusually docile performance). Seduced by romantic English fairy tales, she “escapes” to America, but her benefactors are not as altruistic as they seem: a ransom note is left in her wake. Lovesick Chon accompanies the official retinue bearing the ransom to Nevada where he foils a train robbery, marries into a wry Sioux tribe after sucking too long on a peace pipe (“It could be worse,” muses a tribal elder, “it could be a white guy”), inherits a horse smarter than Trigger, and adopts both a guardian angel and an unlikely sidekick.
Owen Wilson, the garrulous would-be career criminal of Bottle Rocket, is laidback outlaw Roy O’Bannon, a gentle philosopher-train robber who couldn’t hit the side of the Rockies with a rifle. Left for dead by his cutthroat gang, Roy and Chon keep crossing paths and trading blows and banter, until Roy hitches onto Chon’s quest with hopes of pocketing a little royal gold for himself. Meanwhile there’s a bounty on their heads and a steely-eyed marshal on their trail (Xander Berkeley, cutting a sharp figure as a corrupt lawman in black). It’s going to take more than one death-defying escape to get this gang who couldn’t shoot straight to their princess.
This East-meets-Old-West action comedy is hardly original, but the unlikely team clicks. Jackie, well over 40, plays the gung-ho rookie with a coy grin, a flying kick, and a spirited, goofy charm. Sardonic, low-key Wilson makes surprisingly effective screen partner for Jackie, his deadpan wit and self-effacing patter balancing Jackie’s clownish mugging.
Director Tom Dey strikes the right balance between white hat/black hat showdowns, spirited action scenes, and anachronistic tongue-in-cheek punchlines (“My name is Chon Wang.” “John Wayne? That’s a terrible cowboy name!”). Jackie’s furious moves are more often comic displays of acrobatic slapstick than deadly showdowns, but he tenses for the climactic fight to the finish with a determined seriousness, his grin turning grim and his eyes narrowing in concentration.
Jackie doesn’t have many years left for this kind of giddy cinematic horseplay — age is creeping into his face and he’s not as spry as he used to be — but he can still turn a silly little action comedy like this into a high-spirited, butt-kicking good time.