Sunday, June 12, 2011
Posted by Dod at 6:32 PM
When I was a wee lad, I saw Jackie Chan in 1981's Cannonball Run and immediately became a fan of his infinitely kinetic, often comedic style of martial arts. I'd use my limited resources to see him in other movies, like 1980's The Big Brawl, which I didn't see until the mid-80's. The 90's rolled around, and I somehow got in touch with a VHS rental-by-mail company which predated Netflix by several years. They had a great international catalog, and lo and behold...there was Jackie Chan and a wealth of his films from the 1980's, when he enjoyed a hugely successful run as one of a wonderful action-comedy trio.
As a child, Chan attended and studied at the Peking Opera, where he met Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. The three were fast friends in the grueling school, learning among other things, how to use their martial arts and gymnastic prowess to the fullest. They moved on into film, first as extras, then as marquee stars, directors, and choreographers. The 1980's were probably their busiest and most prolific, as they churned out hit after hit. They made films separately, but when they worked together, that was where the box office magic happened.
Their chemistry was as undeniable as the differences in their styles. Chan was the guy with the moves, and was the lead face in nearly every work they did. Hung was the chubby guy with the incredible comic timing and deceptive quickness. Biao was the smallest and the most acrobatic, using flips and lightning-fast moves. Where they were different in their styles and appearances, the influences were the same: classics like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were evident in the trio's mannerisms and stunts. They mixed martial arts with old school slapstick comedy and created a run of wonderfully whimsical movies during the 80's like Project A, Dragons Forever, and the Lucky Stars series.
One of the surefire staples of this period was Wheels On Meals (aka Kuàicān Chē, Spartan X, and Powerman among other titles), made in 1984 and directed by Hung. It's considered a favorite among classic Hong Kong action film fans not only for its obvious goofiness, but for the thrilling fight scenes, especially the climactic battle between Chan and real-life martial arts champion Benny "The Jet" Urquidez.
The plot is fairly simple and full of gags. Thomas (Chan) and David (Biao) run a food cart in Barcelona, Spain. During the day, they sell burgers and egg rolls in a popular plaza, and by night, they train in martial arts. The fighting skills come in handy when they have to run off a motorcycle gang terrorizing the plaza. When visiting David's father in a mental hospital, they're smitten by Sylvia (Spanish actress Lola Forner), the daughter of a woman David's dad falls for in the hospital. They run into Sylvia in the city, where she turns out to be a thief, posing as a hooker to rob men. However, there's more to Sylvia than meets the eye. Private detective Moby (Hung) is looking for her, as are some guys with more sinister motives. Seems Sylvia is the long-lost heir to a massive fortune and a local crime boss, Mondale (Pepe Sancho), wants to force her hand over the goods, preferably by marriage.
After the boys rescue her a couple times, Sylvia joins them, working as a waitress for their food cart. Eventually, Mondale sends his big boys (Urquidez and yet another real-life champion Keith Vitali) after Sylvia and they manage to kidnap her. The good guys can't let this happen, so they stage a daring rescue in Mondale's castle stronghold, taking on his henchmen and engaging in some tremendous martial arts battle, including the one I mentioned between Chan and Urquidez. While that is truly one of the best martial arts battles to grace the screen, you can't take away from the final fight between Biao and Vitali, involving many flips, plush furniture, and a pineapple as a weapon.
If you get a hold of this sweet little film, don't be put off by the dubbing. It can be excruciating at times, to be honest, but it's a very small price to pay to watch Chan, Biao, and Hung work their magic. The movies they made brimmed with eternal optimism: we will beat the bad guy and we will win the day. The jokes and gags are light-hearted and hammy. The fights and stunts are breathtaking, and they were an important component of Hong Kong cinema for years. Wheels On Meals exemplifies those qualities and adds the beautiful scenery of Barcelona into the mix. And yes, the draw is the Chan-Urquidez main event, a physical, sometimes brutal, sometimes funny controlled brawl. There are highlights within the highlights, such as Chan's character using positive thinking to change his style, tickling as an offensive weapon, and a kick by Urquidez that literally blows out some candles (which I understand was not a trick). Speaking of chemistry, Chan and Urquidez also battled in the wonderful Dragons Forever and that was a show-stoppers as well. They just work so well as foes.
If you only know Chan from his Rush Hour movies or more watered-down Hollywood releases, or Hung from his short-lived but fun American TV show Martial Law, then you really should treat yourself to Meals On Wheels, or any one of their 80's heyday movies. They're a blast, and may have you pulling a ligament trying to imitate their moves.
Not that I speak from experience.
Now enjoy the amazing final fight scene: