Wednesday, 18 February 2015

Jackie Chan in the 1980s - Wheels on Meals

Sammo Hung follows up the intermittently wonderful Winners & Sinners with Wheels on Meals, another action packed comedy. Winners was an important film for Hung and his co-star Jackie Chan, it demonstrated that their fight and stunt films could still attract an audience when updated to the modern day. Wheels goes one further, relocating the action from Hong Kong to Spain and setting its stars up against a host of international heavies including martial arts renaissance man Benny Urquidez.

Dramatically, Wheels puts Yuen Biao front and centre. The boyish star plays David, cousin to Jackie Chan's Thomas and co-owner of the pair's fast-food van. There's a sense that Wheels was an attempt by Golden Harvest to push Biao as a leading man. At a purely mechanical level, his desires drive the film. It is David who wants to rescue Lola Forner's Sylvia, a beautiful but charmless pickpocket who may actually be a Countess.

Thomas is a lot less enthusiastic. He'll make an effort if she's around but overall he's reticent to fold her into their little collective. It's an unusual characterisation for Chan, tallying closer to his real-life reputation as a remorseless womaniser than the sexless screen persona forced on him by a jealous, excitable fan base. Even though their relationship remains resolutely chaste, David, in his own bumbling, relentlessly polite way, is the romantic lead. It's a shame Wheels doesn't push Biao a little further.

Often pigeonholed as the perennial little brother, Yuen Biao's raw physicality and speed lend him an almost psychotic edge. He's just far too efficient. Whereas Chan and Hung brawl with the best of them, Biao zaps through the frame steamrolling grunts. This precision coupled with Peter Cheung Yiu-chung's crisp editing means Biao's incidental confrontations are always brutally swift, a quality that seems slightly at odds with his spaced out character. Although this is by no means a deal-breaker, it'd be interesting to see Biao's characters reflect the actor's lithe intensity.

Besides some comedic dithering in the first hour Wheels is a finely crafted film, light years ahead of similar attempts by Hong Kong directors to deliver an international product. Bruce Lee's cross-continental Way of the Dragon in particular looks primitive and mannered in comparison. The Three Brothers' star power ensures Wheels is a moneyed, professional production,

Director Sammo Hung injects even the most rudimentary movement with a sense of energy and purpose. Hung also attracts the best talent. A rugged car chase was arranged by Blackie Ko, a legendary figure in Hong Kong automotive stunts. Biao and Chan are on career best form, everyone's firing on all cylinders. Barcelona isn't just used for brisk establishing shots either. Hung stages his action in and around the beautiful Antoni Gaudi architecture, giving the film the same kind of globetrotting verisimilitude the better Bonds enjoy.

I get the impression that Wheels on Meals was an important film for Japanese audiences in particular. Perhaps it was helped along by a plot that shares similarities with Hayao Miyazaki's The Castle of Cagliostro? Chan himself was a massive star in Japan at this point, attracting a possessive, idol level of attention from his female fans. Chan, it seems, is perfectly suited to this market. As well as being able to package himself as a cute but masculine boy next door for the girls, he's also the living embodiment of the friends-and-training ethos that drives most shonen manga.

The influence of Hung's film isn't limited to Jackie Chan either, there's an aesthetic fallout too. Similar to how the visual tics and tricks of Star Wars and Star Trek: The Motion Picture were reinterpreted and regurgitated by 1980s sci-fi anime, traces of Wheels on Meals keep showing up in video games, especially early combat coin-ops. Most obviously there's Irem's Kung-Fu Master, released as a Wheels tie-in in Japan under the film's Spartan X rebranding.

Capcom seem to have been paying attention too. Aside from reconfiguring the Evil Count character into their Matador fighter Vega (Balrog if you're Japanese), you can see the film's insert action in how combos are communicated in the Street Fighter II games - that glimpse of limbs already at their destination, movement implied through where the arms and legs are not rather than any specific motion. The interior of the Count's castle has a decor that will echo across the Resident Evil series too, in particular the two Shinji Mikami entries.

What keeps Wheels on Meals memorable for most audiences is the closing fight between Chan and Urquidez. The two are evenly matched, twice mirroring each other with some groundwork that looks like a dropkicking Cossack dance. Urquidez is the perfect opponent for Jackie Chan. He's of a similar height and build, his real-life martial arts credentials (Black Belts in Judo, Jujutsu, Karate, Kajukenbo, Kendo and Kickboxing) feeding into the idea that Chan's films are a hairsbreadth away from full-contact reality.

As this is a Sammo Hung film the violence scales with the stakes. Whereas before we've had head-to-heads that are broadly comedic, the last couple of clashes feature some serious bodily harm. One sequence involving Chan cracking a prone bodyguard across the jaw with a baseball bat is shocking not just for the sheer remorselessness of the strike but for the blood splatter it produces. Thirty minutes ago Thomas was sucking lollipops and pouting like a child.

Head trauma is a recurring theme in Wheels. When he finally has Urquidez on the ropes, Chan hammers at his opponents face, frantically trying to put him down. The blows come in slow motion and look stiff, designed to harm. Urquidez's cheeks are puffed up and swollen. There's palpable desperation in how Chan approaches Urquidez, he can't outfight him so he has to knock him unconscious. Chan even resorts to a cheap chair shot at one point.

The film runs with this idea, focusing every decisive blow around Urquidez's head, even going so far as to have him stumbling around no longer in control of his legs. Brain damage wasn't an unforeseen development, it was the intent. As an outcome this escalation in violence is emblematic of the moment-to-moment pragmatism at work in Hong Kong cinema. Sammo Hung's heroes don't rise above homicidal violence, they match it.

Wheels on Meals confirms a lot of what I suspected watching Winners & Sinners, Sammo Hung is able to tap into Jackie Chan and his abilities in a way no-one else can. Hung, it seems, has an instinctual knowledge of his Peking Opera cohort and is able to push him further to deliver something extra special. It's easy to see why Chan might feel he's in safe hands. Hung's action is clear and sympathetic, perfectly capturing the risk his stars have taken. Any ego or conflict that might exist between the three former classmates is firmly behind the camera. Each of the trio consistently get to look absolutely amazing. Biao throws perfect shapes with his legs, Hung moves around like a man half his size and Chan looks like a God in a forearm bruiser for the ages.

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