OWEN WILSON IS the Fred Astaire of modern film--so much depends upon his partner. Pair him with a complementary star of equal charisma like brother Luke (his Ginger Rogers) and you get Wilson's memorable turn as Dignan in Bottle Rocket; pair him with a giant snake or a hunk of rock (his Cyd Charisse and Jane Powell) and you get forgettable variations on "that-guy-who-dies" in Anaconda and Armageddon.

Wilson's best partner is director Wes Anderson, with whom he wrote the scripts for Bottle Rocket and Rushmore. According to Wilson, he had to be talked into the Dignan role, preferring to remain a wordsmith. His writer chops show in his performance: Not only does Wilson comfortably inhabit the desperate, eager-to-please wannabe criminal, but his line readings are exquisite. With Dignan, Wilson introduced the sort of character that can sustain an entire film career. Like past screen archetypes, Wilson's Dignan is relentlessly self-mythologizing and confident; unlike the personas more commonly built by those from an acting background, Dignan is only too happy to take twists of fate and crushing defeats and turn them into interesting back-story. Wilson's most fully realized character is essentially a writer trying to make a better movie out of his own life. Wilson portrays this in such a basic, honest, guileless way that an audience forgives the character's essential self-absorption.

Hollywood rewarded Wilson by marching the once-reluctant actor through a series of independent misfires and big-budget schlock. Wilson kills Sheryl Crow in The Minus Man and endangers Ben Stiller in Permanent Midnight; following the leads of Armageddon and Anaconda, he also gets killed in The Haunting. It's tempting to say that Wilson's appearances are unmemorable. But in reality, Wilson is another in a long string of actors whose appeal has been misunderstood and put to partial use in bad movies. As Wilson builds twin careers in largely ignored aisles of the video store, one must wonder if Hollywood will ever make a proper Owen Wilson film.

Wilson's new movie, Shanghai Noon, comes reasonably close. In the big-budget Western-comedy bravely opening against Mission: Impossible 2, Wilson plays bandit Roy O'Bannon, a better-adjusted Dignan altered by the demands of the revisionist Western. The worst genre in movie history, revisionist Westerns from Silverado through Wild, Wild West ask the audience to delight in the fact that actors and actresses of many races are being allowed to play Cowboys and Indians--as if history never happened.

The revisionist Western star has it tough: He must be able to squint at the bad guy and wink at the audience. Wilson smartly gives Roy an undercurrent of self-awareness. Because on some level he recognizes how he benefits from the flubbed gunfights and last-second reprieves, Wilson is able to enjoy himself without losing the audience. He is less movie star playing cowboy than second banana playing handsome lead. Delivering readings that wring humor out of lines that have been around as long as the Western (he actually gets laughs from a variation on "You do it your way and I'll do it mine"), Wilson leaves Shanghai Noon smelling like a rose. It helps that he's paired with Jackie Chan, whose delicate approach to an unfamiliar language gives Wilson plenty of space to verbally maneuver. Chan's physical scenes afford the pair some much-needed authenticity as Old West badasses. When Wilson and Chan are together onscreen, Shanghai Noon is fine. Unfortunately, the rest of the movie keeps showing up.

Even a compatible partner for Wilson can't save Shanghai Noon from the musty odor of the second-rate. Its plot unfolds like a fifth-generation Xerox. Some princess has to be saved from some clumpy, labor-driven railroad/ mining concern, and the male leads must shed their current roles and embrace new, dimly conceived identities. Wilson and his co-star are to be credited for occasionally rising above the material, but in the end there are much better ways to spend a summer afternoon.

So the question remains: Will Hollywood ever find a place for this star with a unique approach to the English language, or will he always be better served in the movie subculture from which he sprang?

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