Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. As part of Y2k Week here at The A.V. Club, we’ll be listing the 25 best films of the year 2000. These are some of our favorites that didn’t make the countdown.
The most recent season of Karina Longworth’s podcast, You Must Remember This, covers the life of the late Polly Platt, the movie producer and art director who worked on some of the best films of the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s—including Wes Anderson’s 1996 debut feature, Bottle Rocket. Throughout the season, actor Maggie Siff reads from the unfinished, unpublished memoirs of Platt, who wrote that the first time she watched the Bottle Rocket demo reel, she realized two things: that Anderson had a unique style; and that the lead actors, Luke and Owen Wilson, were movie stars.
Bottle Rocket was a non-starter at the box office, but Hollywood producers agreed with Platt about the Wilson brothers, who stayed busy in the years following their breakthrough. It took a while, though, for casting directors to figure out exactly how to use Owen, whose rakish charm, low-key good humor, and deep vulnerability were all tough to compress into the comic relief roles he kept getting offered. His experiences were a bit like what Hong Kong martial arts superstar Jackie Chan went through when he made his first attempt to crack the American market in the early ’80s, only to get stuck in thudding action pictures that didn’t showcase his grace, agility, or imagination.
By the time Wilson and Chan teamed up for the Wild West comedy Shanghai Noon, Chan had become a reliable moneymaker in the U.S.—first with dubbed and re-edited versions of his early ’90s Hong Kong hits, and then as a partner to comedian Chris Tucker in the 1998 buddy cop movie Rush Hour. In some ways, Shanghai Noon copies the rudiments of the Rush Hour formula, as Chan plays a fish out of water—a member of 19th-century China’s Imperial Guard, stranded in America—who gets not-so-helpful lessons about his new surroundings from an amiable doofus.
Wilson plays the doofus, Roy O’Bannon, an incorrigible outlaw with a romantic streak. The role was perfect for Wilson, who was essentially playing a cowboy version of Dignan, the fussy and optimistic would-be heist artist he created alongside Wes Anderson for Bottle Rocket. As Wilson’s Roy and Chan’s character, Chon Wang, scour Nevada saloons searching for the kidnapped Princess Pei-Pei (Lucy Liu), Shanghai Noon divides fairly evenly into scenes where Chan gets to bounce off trees and fling horseshoes, and scenes where Wilson gets to wax philosophical about whether he’s really cut out for criminal mischief. (“I felt like all the other cowboys hated my guts,” he sighs, after a botched train job.)
Even in the summer of 2000, Shanghai Noon felt a bit outdated. On multiple levels, it’s a throwback: to the kinds of odd-couple action-comedies that littered the multiplex in the’80s and ’90s, but also to the silly ’60s Westerns that trafficked in broad stereotypes about native people and pioneers. The movie’s schtick is slick and satisfyingly familiar but creaky.
Still, that’s where having a great cast helps. Liu brings uncommon poise and dignity to the thankless role of the damsel in distress, while Roger Yuan and Xander Berkeley make suitably cocky villains. There’s even a small, hilariously nutty Walton Goggins turn as the loose cannon in Roy’s gang. Yet what mostly makes Shanghai Noon so easy to rewatch 20 years later is that director Tom Dey lets his leads do their thing. Chan gets to be the overlooked little guy with the big talent, performing dazzling stunts with crack comic timing. And Wilson gets to be the lovable dreamer, who gives us the essence of The Owen Wilson Experience when he survives a near-death experience and then becomes all sappy, saying, “I’ve never noticed what a beautiful melody a creek makes. I’ve never taken the damn time.”
Availability: Shanghai Noon is available to stream for free (with ads) on IMDb TV. It can also be rented or purchased from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, Microsoft, Fandango, DirectTV, and VUDU.