Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Jackie Chan Season #2: Wheels On Meals (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, 1984)

快餐車 (Kuai can che)
When embarking on a Jackie Chan marathon one recurring name becomes synonymous with quality. That name is Sammo Hung; director, actor, choreographer, writer, producer - you name it, he's left a mark on it. The Hong Kong legend even has a band named after him... although oddly enough, they're Welsh. Hung has worked with Chan on a number of occasions, taking on different roles with each project. Hung directed and acted alongside Chan in Wheels On Meals, a hilariously stylish caper that plays as a buddy movie for the first half, and three musketeers rescue mission for the second. What it never lets up on is chemistry or set-pieces, and the finale boasts one of Chan's most impressive fights - against fighting legend Benny Urquidez (he has black belts in nine different martial arts). We start with the plot...

One of the films numerous alternative titles, Million Dollar Heiress, actually does a pretty neat job of summing things up. Thomas (Chan) and David (Biao Yuen) are cousins who own a traveling fast food service. One day they visit David's father (Paul Chang) in a mental asylum, where they meet Sylvia (Lola Forner), the daughter of his girlfriend Gloria (Susana Sentís). Despite her beauty Sylvia turns out to be a petty thief - and soon causes trouble for the cousins who have fallen for her. Meanwhile bumbling sidekick Moby (Hung) is promoted to Private Detective when his boss mysteriously disappears. He's put in charge of tracking down Sylvia for a mysterious client and soon the characters lives intertwine into one action-packed adventure.

The most interesting point initially is that Wheels On Meals is set in Barcelona, Spain. In terms of Hong Kong cinema Chan is famed for his division between classical period pieces (Project A, Jackie Chan, 1983) and his police thrillers (Police Story, Jackie Chan, 1985), alternately evoking old world tradition and contemporary crime issues. In other words, they're distinctly the work of the country in which they were made. While Wheels On Meals has all the martial arts action you could hope for, its setting plays an interesting role in the film and adds a new dynamic to the way Chan and Hung interact with the world around them. The film is lent a European vibrancy - the colours are more profound and the architecture closer observed. Hung and Chan have fun playing with the culture of Spain... its market stalls, back alleys and castles are a perfect backdrop for their playful set-pieces. The beautiful buildings rise far above the city streets and it's one of the most visually pleasing films from this era of Chan's career, and certainly the best directed.

The film was originally to be titled the more obvious and sensible Meals On Wheels, but distributors Golden Harvest had recently had two box office flops starting with the letter 'M' and superstitiously thought this was to blame. The name was changed to the more unconventional and silly Wheels On Meals. It does do a good job of establishing tone however, because just like the title, certain elements of the film feel very last minute. Entire plot devices seem to exist just for the sake of dragging the film out to a reasonable running time - the entire middle third consists of Sylvia being kidnapped, rescued, kidnapped, rescued etc. All we know is that bad guys are after her and they won't stop coming until it's time for the final showdown which, in all honesty, is worth every second of the over-extended story. The fight is among Chan's best...

Benny Urquidez proves to be a formidable opponent to Chan and their fight is blisteringly fast paced and brutal; famous for a spin-kick performed by Urquidez that's so fast it extinguishes a row of candles. What's interesting is the physical difference between the two men. Urquidez is short, stocky, well built and takes a solid stance - like a stone warrior. Chan is much more flexible, able to move his limbs at lightning speed, able to dodge attacks and recover quickly. Every blow feels like a real bone breaker and there's a point where the blood and bruises actually start to look real. It's a really energetic, varied and intense fight which also finds time to add in the usual Chaplin-esque slapstick tomfoolery. Brilliantly directed, the sequence is intercut with an athletic fight between David and a second suited thug played by professional martial artist Keith Vitali, and a sword fight between Moby and the main villain (Pepe Sancho), whose demise is a little disappointing.

Throughout all of this what's most in abundance is the chemistry. Chan, Yuen and Hung strike sparks off each other in every scene. Chan and Yuen especially have the feeling of having grown up together - when a scene requires comic timing they know when each others beats are coming, and a comic put-down will hit just the right tone. It doesn't feel like scripted dialogue - in fact it sometimes feels like a competition for screen time as they talk over each other. It's very relaxed, very natural, and very engaging.

This is a really funny, exciting and visually impressive piece of martial arts comedy, stylishly directed and packed with star chemistry. The plot does feel dragged out but there's never a boring moment due to the unrelenting pace and classic action sequences, including the Chan/Urquidez smackdown, one of the finest fights in his back catalogue. There's a great car chase too, with the fast food vehicle making an impossible stunt jump that's as exciting as anything in modern action cinema.

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