Ripper Fu: Shanghai Knights Meet Jack the Ripper
Okay, you’re probably wondering what you’re doing looking at a graphic link to Shanghai Knights when this is supposed to be a Ripper movie blog. Am I right? Well, on Hollywood Ripper, we cover all screen appearances by Jack the Ripper that we know about, even if his appearance comes in the form of a small cameo. And Jack the Ripper does make a cameo appearance in Shanghai Knights.
But the movie may have an even stronger tie in with the Ripper case. In pre-production press reports, the story was actually said to involve having Chon Wang and Roy O’Bannon go to England with the express purpose of stopping the Ripper. (See Shanghai Knights: Chan And Wilson Take On Jack The Ripper–an article written late in 2001).
This leaves an intriguing question: was the royal English bad guy originally slated to be the Ripper? Whether or not he was, the Ripper cameo works quite nicely on its own, and Aiden Gillen is evil enough in his role not to need to be Jack the Ripper too.
BASIC PLOT: Okay, you may recall from Shanghai Noon that Jackie Chan’s character (Chon Wang) is an Imperial Guard in the Forbidden City, sent to America to retrieve the kidnapped Princess Pei-Pei. In Shanghai Knights, we see Wang’s father (keeper of the Imperial Seal) murdered and the Seal stolen by English noble, Lord Rathbone (Aiden Gillen). Wang’s sister, Chon Lin (Fann Wong), is sent after Rathbone to retrieve the seal. From London, she writes her brother, who travels from the western desert to New York to get his cut of the Shanghai Noon gold from old partner Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson). Instead they team up and venture to London, where they have a series of adventures involving acculturating to England, fighting English and Chinese bad guys, and (of course) retrieving the Imperial Seal.
THE RIPPER CAMEO: Chon Wang, Chon Lin, and Roy O’Bannon end up one night in Whitechapel… and it is, of course, 1888. They go into a brothel, and after a series of events Lin walks out angry, disgusted, and alone. Near the River, she is confronted by the psychotic killer who is terrorizing London–none other than Jack the Ripper himself. Using her spectacular martial arts footwork, Lin makes quick work of the Ripper, kicking him over the bridge railing and into the Thames below. And, apparently, that’s the end of Jack the Ripper. So now we know what became of the Ripper. He just messed with the wrong girl.
THE GOOD: Oh, gee, where do I start? First off, let me put my cards on the table: I love martial arts movies, and I think that Jackie Chan is one of the finest physical comedians in cinema history. So you might assume that it’s a given that I would like Shanghai Knights. But actually, since I’m not remotely a fan of Shanghai Noon (and since Owen Wilson is one of the few actors that I actively avoid watching on screen), all bets are off on this one. But yes, I did think that Shanghai Knights was loads of fun.
For starters, Owen Wilson is actually funny in it, which is certainly a plus in a comedy. Chan is always entertaining to watch, no matter what the movie, and in this film, his love of classic screen comedy really comes through. In Shanghai Knights, he pays tribute to a number of his screen heroes… including Gene Kelly (his favorite choreographer), Buster Keaton (his favorite physical comedian/stuntman), Charlie Chaplin, and even Harold Lloyd. Chan, of course, makes each of these elements his own–
as he mimics Buster Keaton gags…
as he draws Kelly’s Singin’ in the Rain choreography into his own fight choreography…
and as he imperils his characters on the minute hand of a huge clock tower (Big Ben???) in a clear tip of the hat to Harold Lloyd…
In addition to all the comedy-tribute hijinks, Singapore-Chinese actress Fann Wong is a real “find” for American cinema. And Aiden Gill brings out all the charm, all the malevolence, and all the gentlemanly love of a good swordfight in his portrayal of the tensely smirky evil Lord Rathbone.
And then there’s Donnie Yen (star of Iron Monkey and featured martial artist in a wealth of Hong Kong movies starring the likes of Michelle Yeoh and Jet Li). I mean, can you believe that Jackie Chan has the self-assurance to put Donnie Yen in the movie… and let Yen actually win the Kung Fu fight on the barge??? (Chon Lin, of course comes to the rescue before Yen’s evil Wu Chow dispatches her brother, but she wins only by… “cheating”).
At any rate, this is, I believe, the first American Jackie Chan movie featuring another major Hong Kong martial arts star, and Chan makes the most of it. In choreographing the fight, Chan gives Donnie Yen the animal Kung Fu styles and uses a more frenetically hybrid (Americanized?) style himself.
Kung Fu battles between major wushu artists are a staple of Hong Kong cinema, but I can’t remember seeing them in very many American-produced martial arts films… at least, not since Bruce Lee dispatched Chuck Norris in Return of the Dragon!
THE BAD: Okay, the criticism I’m about to make doesn’t bother me too much, but some people might think it really hurts the film… i.e. the plot is ludicrous and uses anachronism quite heavily. As for me, hey, I majored in English and learned way back in undergrad and grad school that realism and plausibility are actually latecomers to literary and performance art. Shakespeare is never very particular with the continuity of time (I mean, he’s got medieval lords in ancient pagan Britain, for goodness’ sake!), nor is he very particular with the plausibility of his stories (Midsummer Night’s Dream, anyone?), so why should Jackie Chan be–especially in a comedy? Still, anachronisms involving real historical personages can be a little bit unsettling. I mean, Charlie Chaplin was born in 1889… the year after the Ripper murders. He certainly would not have been running around London stealing stolen pocket watches at that time!
THE UGLY: Chan and Co. use the same gag at the end of Shanghai Knights that they used at the end of Rush Hour… i.e. falling from a great height holding on to a big piece of cloth. It works here because the cloth is a gigantic Union Jack. But I’d advise Chan to put this one to rest before it gets too rusty.
Anyway, Shanghai Knights is a fun, if silly, flick–and certainly worth the price of the rental and the popcorn.
Links to get you started…
Shanghai Knights — The Official Site (Some cool stuff here, including Jackie Chan’s diaries during the shoot)
Shanghai Knights (2003): Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Fann Wong, David Dobkin (a whole slew of reviews–most good, some bad–on the Rotten Tomatoes website)
Jackie Chan interview – Jackie Chan on Shanghai Knights (In reality, it’s a short, entertaining article that talks to both Chan and Wilson)
The Official Jackie Chan Website (Jackie is very involved with this site, which really makes it more like a community than just a website)
World of Owen at Wilson-Brothers.com (Gee, I didn’t know Owen had a brother)
Donnie Yen’s Official Website (Another very good celebrity website)
Donnie Yen interview – Fight choreographer and Shanghai Knights villain (Short, but very good interview with Donnie Yen, done shortly before shooting Shanghai Knights)
Fanfare – Fann Wong (A listing of sites devoted to the young woman who plays Chon Lin in Shanghai Knights)
Aiden Gillen (I couldn’t find much on this guy. This is really just a listing of links to stuff about him. He’s a good actor, though, so we should be hearing more from him in the future)