Thursday, January 20, 2011

Kill Bill and Miltonic Allusion: Shanghai Noon

I continue to insist that Tarantino is JUST LIKE JOHN MILTON. They both allude to earlier works as part of a large interpretative project, which ends with their work being the culmination of a long tradition that no one will ever view the same way again.

[Jackie Chan ties a rope to a horseshoe and uses it as a weapon. At one point he does a flourish where he wraps it around his neck and then swings it out from there at his opponent.

[GoGo uses her bladed ball on a chain weapon. She swings it around her neck and swings it from there at her opponent.]

Shanghai Noon is surprisingly fun movie, actually. Jackie Chan is an 19th century imperial guard in China who tasked with getting Lucy Lui's kidnapped princess back, after she is stolen and taken to Nevada. He teams up with Owen Wilson's cowboy and they win. The end. What makes it fun is that the kid-friendly martial arts scenes, including the one clipped above, are mixed with Owen Wilson being MAXIMUM OWEN WILSON: digressive, self-conscoious, super aw-shucks casual, and just really funny. Some people don't like him. I like him. That is going to be the end of that.

Chan uses his horseshoe on a rope weapon as GoGo uses hers: there is the exact move with the rope around the neck in both. This is not the strongest connection. If you are being fancy with a weapon on a chain or rope, this is probably how you are going to do it, and it does not mean for sure that Tarantino is trying to allude to Shanghai Noon.

But there is no movie beneath Tarantino's notice, and this one might have caught his attention. For one, Owen Wilson inexplicably survives a hail of bullets and calls it a miracle, just as Samuel L Jackson does in Pulp Fiction. He also spends a lot of time talking like a Tarantino character, at one point quoting James Brown's "I don't know karate but I know c-razy." Referencing 70s songs like that is major Tarantino territory.

Like Kill Bill Shanghai Noon is a fusion of Kung-Fu and Cowboy elements, scored with contemporary music (such as Kid Rock's Cowboy). As in Kill Bill, Lucy Liu is a major object of the fighting. Tarantino, as we will see later in this post and as we have seen many times before, has he female characters allude to male counterparts into order to signal that his women have replaced the men -- that they are just as tough, and more tough. He revises Shanghai Noon by giving Lucy Liu something more to do than get saved.

And like Kill Bill, Shanghai Noon alludes to earlier films in a deliberate way. There are lots of Western in-jokes, including a villain named Van Cleef (the actor who played The Bad in The Good the Bad and the Ugly), a title that is a pun on Garry Cooper's High Noon, Chan's character is named Chong Wang, which sounds like John Wayne (Owen wilson tells him that he has to change his name because John Wayne is a terrible name for a cowboy), at the end Wilson tells Chan that his real name is Wyatt Erp, which Chan says is a terrible name for a cowboy, Doctor Quinn Medicine Woman is alluded to in the end as is the ending of Buch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (our guys leap out doors into a hail of bullets at the end but of course our guys survive). There is a reference to The Good the Bad and the Ugly, as Wilson is hanging by a noose and is saved when a rifle at a distance shoots the rope. There is also an allusion to Chan's Drunken Master movie -- Chan gets really drunk and the director hoped to do a big homage to the movie in which Chan's martial arts are brought on by drunkenness. He only gets a matching scene of Chan blowing bubble with his mouth as he does in Drunken Master, but still. A lot of this is pointed about by One big one that is not is a scene where Wilson gets buried up to his neck and left to die and is found by Chan who is his mismatched buddy at this point. This is exactly the situation in of the the major influences on Kill Bill -- the little seen Death Rides a Horse.

And like Bruce Lee, whose presence is all over The House of the Blue Leaves sequence, Chan is a guy famous for using martial arts to cross over into Western movies. Chan himself is careful to distinguish is style from Bruce Lee's, so he feels the influence there. Chan worked as a stuntman on Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon and Fist of Fury when he was 17. Here is Wikipedia on Chan's early career:

In 1976, Jackie Chan received a telegram from Willie Chan, a film producer in the Hong Kong film industry who had been impressed with Jackie's stuntwork. Willie Chan offered him an acting role in a film directed by Lo Wei. Lo had seen Chan's performance in the John Woo film Hand of Death (1976) and planned to model him after Bruce Lee with the film New Fist of Fury. His stage name was changed to Sing Lung (Chinese: 成龍, also transcribed as Cheng Long, literally "become the dragon") to emphasise his similarity to Bruce Lee, whose stage name was Lei Siu-lung (Chinese: 李小龍, meaning "Little Dragon"). The film was unsuccessful because Chan was not accustomed to Lee's martial arts style.


Jackie Chan created his screen persona as a response to Bruce Lee, and the numerous imitators who appeared before and after Lee's death. In contrast to Lee's characters, who were typically stern, morally upright heroes, Chan plays well-meaning, slightly foolish regular guys (often at the mercy of their friends, girlfriends or families) who always triumph in the end despite the odds. Additionally, Chan has stated that he deliberately styles his movement to be the opposite of Lee's: where Lee held his arms wide, Chan holds his tight to the body; where Lee was loose and flowing, Chan is tight and choppy.

With Thurman dressed as Lee is in Game of Death for her fight with GoGo there is a bit of Lee vs Chan here, as if Thurman and GoGo are avatars for these earlier Chinese movie stars to play something out. And of course Thurman wins. Because Bruce Lee is way better than Jackie Chan, and even if he was not Tarantino is on Bruce Lee's side no matter what, as we will see.

Tarantino has found an unlikely ally in Shanghai Noon, a spawn of Tarantino's sensibilities, and GoGo makes an almost literal nod to it.


Dylan said...

Another great post in a great series. And I agree wholeheartedly, Shanghai Noon is a really fun, solid film.

Geoff Klock said...

I am totally glad you agree with me on this! I kind of thought no one would.

Robyrt said...

This one was confusing. There's pretty much nothing to suggest that Tarantino has ever seen Shanghai Noon - they are both playing in the same goofy martial arts cowboy movie space, but that's it. They both use the standard weighted-chain bits, but GoGo uses the opposite of Chan's fighting style: she is basically doing the same 2 moves over and over, instead of mixing it up every time for fun value.

Geoff Klock said...

Yeah, it is not a super-strong connection. But I want to keep it in mind as a possibility, however faint, because the Chan-Lee rivalry which may be signaled here matches up with the larger Bruce Lee theme of the House of the Blue Leaves. These blogs are very much me trying connections out to see if they fit. If it were an essay I would have edited this out of the final draft probably, but what you are seeing here is me writing a first draft, misfires and all.

Dylan said...

Robyrt, do you really believe that a movie came out where Jackie Chan does kung fu on cowboys in the Old West and that Quentin Tarantino didn't go see it?

James said...

Surely Owen Wilson gets a lifetime pass on the strength of Bottle Rocket-Rushmore-Royal Tenenbaums alone? There aren't enough Marley & Dupree's in the world to undo all that good work.