Sunday, June 12, 2011

Signals From Left Field: Wheels On Meals (1984)

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:

Monday, June 6, 2011

52 Perfect Movies: Young Frankenstein (1974)

"Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain into a 7 1/2 foot tall, 54-inch wide GORILLA?!"

When one thinks of a "perfect film", it's more often than not a drama that comes to mind. In the course of this series, there are not very many comedies that make the cut, let alone ones as downright zany and farcical as Young Frankenstein. Yet there can be no denying the sheer genius of this, one of the most perfect comic motion pictures ever made. In a career highlighted by some damn funny movies, Mel Brooks truly outdid himself with this, the one he'll always be most remembered for.

Sure, there have been others, such as Blazing Saddles and The Producers, that come to mind as comedy classics. But none seem to touch the sublime combination of humor, homage and pathos that this one does. It's very easy to see that Brooks has a deep-seated, genuine affection for the Universal horror flicks he is parodizing here. It is exuded in every moment of screen time, and comes across in every single performance. It is a labor of love, and a joy to behold.

It's no wonder that Brooks would repeatedly revisit the formula he started with this film, of spoofing a favorite film genre. It works so well here, that it's only natural to try and recreate it. And while it did work again a few times, it never clicked quite as well as it does here. This is a film so good that it can actually stand amongst the very films to which it is paying tribute.

Most importantly, it's funny as hell. Mel Brooks has been accused of employing stale humor at times in his movies, but that is never further from the truth than in the work he put into Young Frankenstein. To be fair, a great deal of this can also be attributed to the great Gene Wilder, who conceptualized and co-wrote the project with Brooks. In fact, I'd submit that the movie's genius may be more attributable to Wilder than to Brooks.

Not only does Wilder excel as the co-creator, but also as the film's star. In no other film is his natural frenetic energy put to better use--this is a comic performance for the ages. And he's not alone, either, as the movie is rich with brilliant comic performances from the likes of Teri Garr, Gene Hackman, Peter Boyle as the Monster, and of course the late, great Madeline Kahn doing her best old-time movie starlet impression.

And then there are Cloris Leachman and Marty Feldman, two masters of comedic timing whose characterizations as Frau Blucher and Eye-Gor add so much to the film. Not to mention Kenneth Mars in a role directly spoofing that of Lionel Atwill in Son of Frankenstein. Together with the infectiously brilliant Wilder in the lead, this troupe of outstanding performers represent one of the finest comedy ensembles ever put together on film.

Like the very best parodies, Young Frankenstein bursts with genuine admiration and affection for the source material. It looks and feels like a Universal horror film, and is bursting with references and in-jokes targeted at ardent fans. The hermit scene alone is so memorable that for many, it has actually eclipsed the original scene from Bride of Frankenstein, upon which it was based. That says a lot.

There are so many timeless set pieces and gags scattered throughout by the keen comedic minds of Brooks and Wilder. The old "walk this way" routine with Eye-Gor. The doctor's ludicrous medical school presentation. "Abby Normal". Frau Blucher and the neighing horses. And of course, "Puttin' on the Ritz." And yet, even in a comedy as ridiculous as this one, there is room for genuine pathos and gravity, as can be witnessed, for example, in the scene in which Frankenstein and his monster come to an understanding while sharing a jail cell. This is more than just Brooks and his vaudeville schtick. This is comedy on a whole other level.

There is a reason why Young Frankenstein stands out from the rest of Mel Brooks' body of work--why the rest of his career was arguably an attempt to equal its greatness. With the help of Gene Wilder, he was able to craft something that has truly stood the test of time as the ultimate love note to a venerable subgenre of film that Brooks, Wilder and so many others hold so dear. Most importantly of all, it is uproariously funny, and a rare comedy that stands up to endless repeated viewings. Call it Frankenstein. Call if Fronkensteen. I call it brilliance.

NEXT UP: The Godfather Part II (1974)