Long before Jackie Chan teamed with Owen Wilson to bring the Far East to the Old West in Shanghai Noon, and even before Jet Li brought the East to the West in Once Upon a Time in China and America, actor/director Sammo Hung brought the two together within the Chinese confines with Shanghai Express, originally known as Millionaire's Express. This film combines screwball comedy with martial arts action with a bit of a Western bent. It is partially successful in creating an entertaining film, but I have to admit to being a bit underwhelmed by the endeavor.
The main story follows Cheng (Sammo Hung) as he returns home, a wanted man, proceeds to buy up all the businesses he can with plans to blow up the nearby railroad tracks in order to divert the wealthy passengers to the town so they will spend their money there. Meanwhile, there is the lawman who is pursuing Cheng with the intent to collect the reward money. Then there are the bored police of the town who decide to set a fire so they can rob the bank. Finally we have the firemen, led by Yuen Biao, who, as the most virtuous of the lot, take over as the police and set out to clean up the town. And this is before we even get to the train.
Now, the train brings with it a whole new set of issues. There are the wealthy people on board that Cheng wishes to divert to town, plus a group of not so nice fellows who are after an ancient artifact being transported by a couple of government officials. There are also a group of Japanese samurai with their own motives for traveling aboard this particular train. If that isn't complicated enough, there is a group of bandits, featuring a couple of foreigners, Cynthia Rothrock and Richard Norton (as Confederate soldiers), with plans of making a run at the town.
Each of these stories is brought together in broad comic effect, which I did not really find all that funny. This movie is a good case where the parts are greater than the whole. The movie, on the whole, is something of a letdown, the stories never really converge all that well, and the way they are told seems rather sloppy. Still, there is no denying the charms of the parts.
The performers are all quite good, and they are led by the charismatic Sammo Hung. He has a great presence on the screen, and his martial arts mastery is amazing. Then there is Yuen Biao, who I do not know much about but is impressive here; he has good screen presence and his acrobatic moves are impressive. There is one great scene in particular where we see Biao do a cartwheel off the roof of a three-story building, land, get up, and continue the scene in one unbroken take. Cynthia Rothrock does not have much to do for much of the film, but does have a shining moment during the big final battle where she takes on Sammo Hung in a one-on-one battle, a battle that features Sammo doing a Bruce Lee impression. There is even a cameo by a young actor portraying Wong Fei Hung, a historical figure who has been portrayed a great number of times in films such as Legend of Drunken Master, Iron Monkey, and Once Upon a Time in China by the likes of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and many others.
The film ingratiates itself through moments and characters, rather than through the story. In the end, I enjoyed it, but I would not group it at the top of the martial arts or comedy genres.
Audio/Video. They are both pretty good. The video has nice bright colors and is clear, free of any print damage or any artifacting. The end result is a nice anamorphic image. The audio is clear, well representing dialogue, and does the job.
Extras. Dragon Dynasty has put together a nice set of extras which include interviews with Sammo Hung, Cynthia Rothrock, and Yuen Biao, deleted scenes, a pair of trailers, and a very informative commentary track with Bey Logan, a Hong Kong cinema expert.
Bottom line. Fun, if insubstantial. Shanghai Express is a fun diversion and an interesting experiment in an Eastern/Western that blends in 1930s-era screwball comedy with its action. It is hard to go wrong with Sammo Hung, and that goodwill goes a long way.