SURELY THERE IS much sociology to be done on the buddy-cop movie. So far as my informal, non-academic training can pinpoint it, the buddy-cop genre crawled out of the primordial celluloid soup in the early 1980s with the seminal Eddie Murphy / Nick Nolte film "48 Hrs."

A gigantic hit, "48 Hrs." spawned the usual cavalcade of imitators, each following the same basic formula: Two men of differing temperaments and backgrounds are thrown together by circumstance and must learn to work together in order to solve the murder/expose the crooked police chief/save the world/etc. By the end of the adventure these unlikely partners are the best of friends and one of them, usually the rakish, wild one, has gotten the girl. Most of the time, both leads are cops, although occasionally one of the partners is a good-hearted crook or an eccentric civilian.

While the buddy-cop movie might seem to be a product of the '80s, it's actually a distant cousin of the screwball comedies of the '30s and '40s. Our heroes always meet cute and have an antagonistic relationship at the start. Then, as they hurtle through plot points together, overcoming obstacles and getting out of deadly, yet hilarious, scrapes, there's glasnost until, in the final act, they become the grown-up version of adolescent blood brothers.

The sociology comes in when you examine how race plays a part in the buddy-cop oeuvre. Almost all successful buddy-cop movies have a white lead and a black lead. "48 Hrs." and "Another 48 Hrs.," the "Beverly Hills Cop" movies, the "Lethal Weapon" series, "Men in Black," "I Spy"--they all pair whites and blacks together. In a sense, this is completely understandable: The buddy-cop movie often has a fish-out-of-water element to it, and there's no easier shorthand for that than the exaggerated experience of American blacks. (It's interesting to note that the most successful of all these series, "Lethal Weapon," inverted the formula, making the black cop a suburban, settled character and the white cop a slightly unhinged maverick.)

There are, of course, exceptions to this rule where the two buddies are of the same race, but these movies tend to range in quality from bad ("City Heat" with Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood), to worse ("Red Heat" with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jim Belushi), to "Tango & Cash."

Then, in the late 1990s, something happened. As foreign grosses (particularly from Asia) became increasingly important to Hollywood, the buddy-cop formula underwent a subtle shift: The odd-couple pairing now often included a star from a foreign market.

Years from now, 1998's surprise hit "Rush Hour" will be regarded the way we think of "48 Hrs." "Rush Hour" took the buddy-cop formula and used the traditional mixed-race pairing but without using a white lead. Since then, the film's star, Jackie Chan, has made four more of these next-generation buddy-cop movies, some with a black co-star and some with a white co-star. The thing to note is that in these movies, at least insofar as they are accepted by U.S. audiences, the race of the American lead matters not at all: Jackie Chan is the outsider and his partner, black or white, is the recognizable American.

What all of this entails for the future of the old saw that white audiences need white leads will be, I'm sure, debated for years by scholars from the University of Southern California. My own conclusions are unsettled, but I suspect it signals something good about America.

THE LATEST ENTRY in the buddy-cop genre is "Shanghai Knights," starring Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson. It is a sequel to the silly but satisfying "Shanghai Noon" and it's a perfect model of the form.

"Shanghai Noon" ended with our two heroes, Wilson and Chan, united in victory. They bridged the culture gap, overcame long odds, became best friends, and, miraculously, both got the girl.

Yet "Shanghai Knights" starts us right out at the beginning again. A villain steals a valuable Chinese artifact and takes it to London. Chan, now a sheriff in Nevada, vows to chase after it, so he goes to New York to collect his friend, who has blown both of their shares of the treasure from the first movie. Conflict ensues, and much of the rest of the movie is spent making sure that they end up best buds once more.

If this sounds dismal, it is--but it's also quite entertaining. For one thing, Chan, whatever his gifts as a martial artist, is brilliant with physical comedy; it would not be too much to liken him to a modern-day Buster Keaton. In "Shanghai Knights" Chan's fight scenes are whimsical and hilarious, meant not to intimidate audiences, but to entertain them, as if he was treading the boards on Broadway. One scene in particular, where Chan uses a box of umbrellas to fend off a gang of street toughs, is worth the price of admission alone.

The other saving grace is Owen Wilson's presence. Wilson is the unlikeliest of leading men--a weird, off-kilter, not-terribly-good-looking writer who has turned into a bankable movie star. In the last three years Wilson has turned in a string of winning, left-field performances: as a wealthy, lascivious born-again Christian in "Meet the Parents," as a bumbling outlaw in "Shanghai Noon," as the anti-Cruise naval aviator in "Behind Enemy Lines," and, most impressively, as a best-selling novelist and community college professor in "The Royal Tenenbaums" (which, if you haven't seen it, shame on you; rent it tonight).

Wilson often walks the edge between being charming and annoying, and he does so again in "Shanghai Knights." Yet every time you fear a misstep, his good nature shines through and he does or says something twice as clever as his role deserves.

The same can be said for "Shanghai Knights."

Jonathan V. Last is online editor of The Weekly Standard.

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