(PG-13) 3 1/2 stars Three years ago, I opened my review of Shanghai Noon with a tip of the hat to Jackie Chan for making smart career choices - specifically, for dealing with his entry into middle age (especially rough for action stars) by shifting from full throttle solo productions to less stressful buddy comedies. Sharing top billing means a little less solo action, which has to be a relief to a performer famed for his "Look Ma, no stuntmen!" approach to filmmaking.
Indeed, the strategy worked well. Chan hit big teaming with motormouth comic Chris Tucker in two Rush Hour films, and his collaboration with the chronically laid-back Owen Wilson in Shanghai Noon was successful as well. In my review of Noon, I said that the writers of the comic western should be horsewhipped for some of the crap in their sloppy script, but that the film was enormously likable nonetheless, thanks to bright photography, well-choreographed battles and the tremendous chemistry between Chan and Wilson. The same goes for Shanghai Knights, which moves the action from the American Old West to Victorian England to allow more of the fish-out-of-water jokes that drew laughs the first go around. Directed by David Dobkin (Clay Pigeons), the movie features endless riffing on all things English, appearances by numerous historic figures of the era, a soundtrack packed with pop gems from the British Invasion ("Time of the Season" by the Zombies, The Who"s "Magic Bus," "Yeah Yeah" by Georgie Fame and the Blue Flames, "England Swings" by Roger Miller and even a snippet of the old novelty hit "Winchester Cathedral"), remarkably inventive fight scenes and oodles of charm from Chan and Wilson. While the film includes a budding romance, the enduring love story is between friends-to-the-end Chon Wang (Chan) and Roy O"Bannon (Wilson). The bond is so strong that the guys take a pause to verbalize their affection, with O"Bannon saying, "It"s a hell of an adventure we"re having and I"m having a damn ball being with you," followed by Wang acknowledging that he feels the same. What a nice touch. Later, the two become estranged briefly and O"Bannon goes off to mope, while the soundtrack plays Harry Nilsson"s "One (Is the Loneliest Number)." As in the original, Shanghai Knights opens in the Forbidden City, this time with the murder of Chon Wang"s father (Kim S. Chan) and the theft of the imperial seal he protected. Chon Lin (Fann Wong), Wang"s sister, sets off to England to settle the score with Lord Rathbone (Aidan Gillen), the man she holds responsible for the crimes. When Wang, now sheriff of Carson City, hears of the tragedy, he sets off to join his sister, with a stop at turn-of-the-century New York City to visit Roy and retrieve his portion of the money they snagged in the original film. To no surprise, the anachronistic New Age dandy is cash short (the money is all in investments, you see), working as a waiter and gigolo. After the requisite squabbling and a nifty homage to the Keystone Cops, the reunited pair travels across the pond to England. In London, the screenplay goes into overdrive, mixing action with comedy as Wang, Roy and Lin encounter a feisty 10-year-old street urchin (Aaron Johnson) and a good-natured Scotland Yard inspector (Thomas Fisher) as they search for justice. Along the way, landmarks, famous buildings and notable historic characters are milked for laughs, and tribute is paid to silent movie legend Harold Lloyd in a great set piece involving Big Ben. If anything, the screenplay, written by Shanghai Noon scripters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, is even more loosey-goosey than the original, but Knights rises above its excess by tapping into the same reservoir of good will created in Noon. Chon Wang and Roy O"Bannon are such appealing characters - and it is abundantly clear that Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson really enjoy each other. The bottom line is that Shanghai Knights is as much fun as Shanghai Noon. As in the original, the modern mannerisms and references (Beatles fans should pay close attention when Roy suggests who Lin should "play in the garden" with) click because the film is rooted not in historic England, but in the world of every movie ever set in that country during that time period. And the fight scenes work because Jackie Chan is amazing - a little stiffer, to be sure, but still amazing. A reminder: Stay in your seats when the credits begin to roll and enjoy the raucous outtakes.