Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

A quirky ’80s comedy features one of Jackie Chan’s toughest fights

Illustration for article titled A quirky ’80s comedy features one of Jackie Chan’s toughest fights
Photo: BCI Eclipse

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: Jackie Chan has two new movies, Vanguard and Iron Mask, headed for release. To honor the occasion, we’re recommending a few of his best vehicles.

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Wheels On Meals (1984)

One of the toughest fight scenes in the Jackie Chan oeuvre comes at the climax of Wheels On Meals, a 1984 comedy directed by Sammo Hung, a compatriot and fellow alumnus of the China Drama Academy’s Seven Little Fortunes youth troupe. Chan is fighting the American kickboxer Benny “The Jet” Urquidez in the dining room of a Spanish castle. The hits are swift and physical. The falls are hard. In one famous moment, Urquidez kicks so fast that he snuffs out a row of candles. The choreography exemplifies the best of Chan and Hung, which is to say that it’s three-dimensional. But as in the other movies they were making around this time (including Project A, released the same year), there is an element of homage to one’s idols, in this case Bruce Lee: Hong Kong star versus American fighter, tight close-ups of eyes, even a little wack-wacka on the soundtrack.

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For viewers who know Chan as the king of stunts and gags, seeing him as a pure fighter can be discombobulating. This is in part because, like another of his idols, Buster Keaton, he has made a strategic point of concealing his sweat and physique. But here he doffs his baggy sweater to reveal tight muscles and a fashion-forward A-shirt. As the showdown wears on, Jackie the mugger and prankster starts to re-emerge. The cockiness turns to comedy as the star rope-a-dopes Urquidez’s villainous henchman with martial artist impressions. He is, and always has been, the most charismatic of action-movie clowns.

The fact that this scene should come at the end of Wheels On Meals is actually something of a surprise, given that most of the film consists of quirky, softhearted comedy. Chan and Yuen Biao (another former member of the Seven Little Fortunes) play Thomas and David, cousins from Hong Kong who run a high-tech food truck called Everybody’s Kitchen in Barcelona. What passes for a plot involves an inheritance, a thief named Sylvia (Lola Forner), and a bumbling assistant private eye named Moby (Hung, sporting a heinous Jheri curl wig), who has taken on a missing-persons case. There are antics with skateboards and a philandering Italian neighbor, and many jokes about the mental institution where David’s father is a long-term guest. Early on, a quintessentially ’80s motorcycle gang makes an appearance, while a gag that involves a cop and a dirty rag hearkens back to silent film.

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It’s worth noting that while the brand of action slapstick that Chan and Hung were beginning to turn into a global export remains timeless, the genre-mixing parodies that were a Hung specialty can be more of an acquired taste. Not that there aren’t some really funny bits; despite the fact that Chan’s American dubbed voice sounds off-puttingly wrong, this is one of the rare cases where the verbal comedy works in translation. But as far as Chan’s international stardom is concerned, the two most important transitions would probably be the point when he stopped appearing shirtless on camera and when he began making action comedies that were, in terms of plot, more or less straightforward action films. Wheels On Meals captures the best of his creative collaboration with Hung. It has a goofball spirit but also the kind of choreographed, directed, and performed movement that can take your breath away.

Availability: Wheels On Meals is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.

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