Shanghai Noon is an action-comedy film starring Jackie Chan, Owen Wilson, Lucy Liu, and Walton Goggins, released in the year 2000. It was co-scripted by long time writing partners Miles Millar and Alfred Gough, who have worked together on twenty one film/ television projects since 1996. The film aims to pay homage to some of the best known Western movies of the 20th century – the Clint Eastwood Spaghettis, the John Wayne ones, the Magnificent Whatevers – while also serving as light-hearted pastiche. Then it blends West with East by incorporating a martial arts movie element to the storyline, by having Jackie Chan play a fish-out-of-water (and-in-the-desert) ‘Chinaman’ and bodyguard to the emperor, who gets caught up in the hootenanny of gun-slinging and whiskey-swilling that we all know and love so well.
This is not a review of Shanghai Noon, though. The film is fine – funny at times and cringeworthy at others. When Jackie Chan is doing the choreography you can’t really go wrong on the fight-scene front, and Owen Wilson’s goofy outbursts work well against the more straight-faced Chan. It’s the exact same dynamic that made the Rush Hour films so popular – funny fighting man with even funnier hapless man. Comedy meth. The best scenes are when Wilson and Chan bounce off each other, both physically and verbally. And some of the writing is admittedly very funny, even the one liners that would tend to fall flat among the situational humour. Drawing from both Western and Martial Arts catalogues, two genres that pack larger canons than any other film categories in existence, there is no shortage of material to reference. Some of it could be a little less on the nose, but it never dips into Scary Movie territory.
Upon closer consideration of Shanghai Noon’s release date in relation to Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) directed by Quentin Tarantino, one might reasonably conclude that this innocuous summer spoof had a far wider influence than it is given credit for by IMDb/Rotten Tomatoes voters. After all, does the Kill Bill duology not merge the genres of golden era Kung-Fu and Western? That is what gives it such a distinct feel; it’s Blazing Saddles meets Enter the Dragon. And what does that remind you of? Well shoot, if it ain’t Shanghai Noon. And once Tarantino had a taste for Western filmmaking, which only came about through his repeated viewings of Shanghai Noon, he was off to the races. Or the racists, because now we’ve got two modern Spaghetti Western masterpieces in Django Unchained and The Hateful 8, both of which are bestrewn with racial slurs.
Shanghai Noon was on freeview television last night, and I was watching it with keen concentration. However, as the plot progressed, I found myself more and more in awe of the title. I was so impressed that I began to lose interest in the film itself, and instead began to wonder how exactly they’d managed to come up with such a brilliant pun.A perfect pun. A pun that goes above and beyond. A pun that, with one added syllable, takes two totally unrelated divisions of moving pictures and sews them seamlessly together. It’s High Noon, a classic Western trope for the arbitrarily assigned time at which duels traditionally take place, and Shanghai, a real place in Asia where some martial arts films are set. It’s just Shanghai Noon. It’s simple. It’s clean. It is the film title equivalent of the joke “Camping is intense”. A pun to end puns. The finished film, though moderately entertaining, doesn’t hold up to the promise of the name; moreover, it doesn’t deserve its name.
Writers Gough and Millar could have gotten away with, say, Hang em’ Shanghai, and still get the idea across to the audience, who would think “Ah, haha, I see what they have done there, and understand what this film’s tones and themes will be, and the type of humorous angle the writers are approaching it from, and I will go to see it”. But they dug deeper, and in two words they summed up all that their cross-genre Wild West cum Martial Arts Buddy Comedy epic represents. What makes the pun even funnier is that Jackie Chan’s character Chon Wang (a subtle nod to John Wayne) isn’t even from Shanghai, a mistake which is made repeatedly by a host of characters in the film who know little to nothing of Chinese geography nor of the cultural diversity to be found among its lands – much to the giddiness of the viewer at home.
If you’ve not seen Shanghai Noon, this recurring misunderstanding regarding Chon Wang’s birthplace makes it more than worth your while. To top it off, at the end of the movie Chon Wang says the word goodbye as, ‘Sayanora’, which is Japanese, not Chinese, indicating that he has embraced the social norms of his new land and forgiven his comrades for their factual errors by making a self-deprecating joke about himself not knowing where he’s from. After all, what is identity but a construct of the mind?
What I need to know though…what we all need to know, is which one of the scriptwriting duo came up with the name Shanghai Noon. Millar and Gough both wrote the film together yet -unless some supernatural moment of synchronicity occurred between their totally aligned creative minds – only one can be behind the pun. Did they have the pun first, then write the film? Or maybe they wrote the film’s four drafts under some crummy working title like ‘Wild Wild East’, and then spent weeks on end rejecting potential inscriptions until, in a moment of glory, they happened upon this most concise and well-rounded of witticisms.
At around 1 hour and 10 minutes into the running time, I decided to set about informing my 62 Twitter followers just how inspiring I found this pun to be. I hope to expound further on the wordplay workings of the prolific Gough-Miller partnership at a much later date (preferably after my own death) but for now, to whet your appetites, my live reaction tweets to watching Shanghai Noon from 12:28am onwards last night/today, followed by my attempts to come up with something similarly amusing:
Correction: Chinese Labourers feature in a main subplot of the film.
An amateurish first attempt, of which the writer is clearly ashamed. Otherwise, why the overly-defensive caveat explaining why it was funny? Toilet humour is not funny, not even when it is secondary toilet humour made accidentally when referring to Vietnamese currency.
Missed a comma, there. This title is better than the first, though. What works here are the positive/peaceful vibes I’m getting from Buddha – an acceptable substitute for Good because Buddha is as good as deities can get.
One pun punt per individual film should be the limit. Here you can see the embarrassing result of the author’s shoddy ‘improvement’ on the previous pun. It took him a full minute to come up with, if you look at the time stamps there, and it isn’t as good. Too literal.
In an effort to emulate the style of Millar and Gough’s Shanghai Noon by placing the name of a major Chinese city before the rest of the title, the writer not only displays his lack of inventiveness but also his infantile understanding of language. “Beijing is spelled weird, with like a ‘j’ in it and shit. Django has a ‘j’ in it as well!”. Pathetic. Jackie Chjango Unchained would have been suitable, despite the extra word. Using full name makes it more funny and self-aware.
A fine pun! A fine pun indeed! Not only is it minimalist, but it incorporates a slightly lesser known martial art which is nevertheless revered by those who are familiar with it (if you’ve seen Ip Man, then you’ll know what Wing-Chun is all about). This is the best attempt so far, as the resulting film mashup could write itself. Clint Far-Eastwood to star.
On second thoughts, the clapping emojis demonstrate an insufferable smugness on the author’s part. He is almost certainly a prick.
Discrimination. Might as well call it a ninja star. No, shuriken is the correct word. Lone Shuriken Star – yeah, not so good now, is it? This makes me want to be sick in my mug of herbal tea.
Haha! Back on form! All is forgiven! With a solitary letter the famous, multi-Oscar winning yarn about the Native American involvement in the Civil War (starring and directed by Kevin Costner) is transformed into an existential pondering on the philosophical concepts of ancient China as perceived by the animal species canis lupus.
Not clever and certainly not funny. Or, then again, is it? Could it, in fact, be an ironic poke at the lazy writers responsible for the titling of the film Cowboys & Aliens, men/women so braindead that they cannot even be bothered to attempt a pun combining the Western genre with the Sci-Fi Alien Invasion genre? Oh, how this tickles the brain! Though it is important to remember that one should not do the author’s thinking for them, there is little doubt in my mind that this initially awful attempt at a movie title mashup was actually a knowing satire on the uninspired Hollywood sad sacks that don’t even care enough to cover up the fact that they are only in it for the money.
Weak. Surely the Sundance Karate Kid, no? Shame.
This might be mildly amusing were anyone aware of the existence of independently made 2009 Western flick Sweetgrass. But no one is. That the movie is so little known, and that this took four entire minutes for its gormless writer to produce suggests – and this is just my opinion – that he maybe made a Google search for ‘Western films’ or ‘Western films list’ and then scrolled down until he came across a title that he could jam a sub-par pun into the middle of, not thinking of the possible offense caused by promoting a cooking style that has been culturally appropriated from the Orient by whites with undeveloped palates and then utterly bastardised and branded with some generic umbrella term to lure in fat shits who enjoy eating congealed pig. Sweet and fucking sour. Fuck sakes.
Definitely lol’d. Yeah, he can have that one.
Chinese Whispers have no connotations to martial arts in any way, shape, or form. This isn’t even a pun, really. I’ll only allow it on the grounds that the ensuing motion picture borne out of this title would be utterly hilarious. Imagine it. A man who lines up a few dozen horses, whispers “Giddy up” in the ear of the one closest, and then sits back with a frosty mug of Root Beer as all kinds of craziness happens that you couldn’t even imagine. Just imagine it!
Heading back in the right direction, but this culinary through-line has got to stop. Asian culture is about more than food, you ignorant glutton!
So, he has given up at last. Despite the cop out, the author regains some scrap of dignity by giving credit where credit is due. He is shit, but at least he has the lack of self-respect to admit it.
And deserves to die, at that. Bigoted philistine (he’s probably overweight but also a bad cook, hence the predilection for the ‘Orient Express’ aka Chinese Fast Food).
As you can see, even a journeyman punster cannot, after fourteen heartfelt attempts, produce even a close approximation of the perfection of the pun Shanghai Noon. There is no humiliation in admitting defeat, not in the face of genius.
Whether it was Miles Millar or Alfred Gough, the penman of this pun should count his lucky stars, though how he can practically go about doing this I’ve no idea. I suggest he start with his horoscope, the stargazer Iphone app, and an abacus. This kind of greatness rarely repeats itself. Lightning never strikes in the same spot twice, as Tom Cruise’s character says in War of the Worlds starring Tom Cruise (though in that film lighting strikes the same spot as the first time mere seconds later, proving him a liar and a worthless father to his child Dakota Fanning), and neither does a perfect pun come to the same writer twice in one lifetime. The woeful Shanghai Knights, the London-set sequel to Shanghai Noon, proves that idiom true. And the film was bad as well.
In defence of the lacklustre punning, Shanghai Knights incorporated a third genre into the Spaghetti Western/Kung Fu caper mashup: The British Period Drama. What sort of cinematic cocktail is this? I couldn’t do any better, with that material. Or… could I?
The Thai-Takeaway Remains of the Bad Day at Black Rock.
P-ride-like-the-wind and Preju-jitsu-dice.
3:10 Downing Street to Yum Yum (Yum Yum being a chain of oriental buffets based out of Chicago, USA).
Oh, yeah, right, because you could do better. Comment below then, and prove it.
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Here, I send the blog to one writer with a Twitter account, in hope of a response.