Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin… Jackie Chan? It might seem strange at first to consider the Cantonese martial arts filmmaker among a list of comedy pioneers from almost 100 years ago, but if you stop and think about it, it sort of makes sense.
Comedy is a universal language. The aforementioned silent movie stars were not just insanely popular here in the West, but their dialogue-free form of slapstick also permeated culture 7,000 miles away on the other side of the planet. While probably less obvious in movies by Hong Kong’s most celebrated son Bruce Lee (though arguably still present in its ability to show and not tell with some insanely choreographed stunts), the cultural transcendence of those old black and white comedies is never more prominent than in films featuring Jackie Chan.
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But the 1984 martial arts caper Wheels on Meals isn’t just a standard throwaway Jackie Chan vehicle. It features (and is directed by) another of the small Chinese island’s most illustrious stars of the screen. Sammo Hung, who was no fledgling filmmaker at this point in his career. Indeed, neither was Jackie’s co-star Biao Yuen, who also appeared alongside his colleagues as an extra in Bruce Lee’s seminal Enter the Dragon some 11 years prior – and of course Project A, released only a few years earlier, was a huge movie for the team.
The title alone should be a clear enough indicator of what kind of lunacy you’re letting yourself in for with Wheels on Meals. Superstition ran high at the legendary kung-fu film studio Golden Harvest after recent failures, all of which had titles that began with the letter ‘M’. To counteract this, they flipped ‘meals’ and ‘wheels’ around and released one of the more unusually named movies in their collection.
Unlike the sensational Police Story series, which catapulted the already successful Chan into (relatively) mega-stardom the following year, Wheels on Meals has a more understated approach. It’s still flashy, but the comparatively low key affair begins with a couple of fast-food operatives (Thomas (Jackie Chan) and David (Yuen Biao)) in Spain who stop a pickpocket (former Miss Spain, Lola Forna) from running off with their dosh. They soon get embroiled in old chum and private investigator Moby’s (Sammo Hung) plans with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells up to no good, culminating in an epic showdown.
Despite being set in a foreign country it, surprisingly, is not particularly jingoistic for movie of its era. The European setting and scenery gives the movie a refreshingly original quality compared to many of its cheaply made contemporaries that often pitted the heroic Chinese against their foreign enemies.
It’s no great exaggeration to say that martial arts films of the time were praised primarily for their stunt work, more so than their high-stakes drama or nuanced performances. In Wheels on Meals, you won’t find bus loads of stuntmen smashing into concrete, or helicopters being blown up by missiles. But there are still some impressive stunts to gawp at; such as motorcyclists being booted mid-air from their bikes, or mini-vans being hurled over bridges.
Mainly, the stunts that will impress most are the feats of pure athleticism. It’s never boring to see Jackie leap higher and further than you thought humanly possible, only to then spin himself upside down, climb the side of a wall like a cat, and pounce off into an adjacent window in ways you thought only comic book heroes were capable of.
The choreography on some of the fight sequences is also exceptional. Next to the early encounter with the aforementioned bikers, a clear standout is the showdown with Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, with whom Hung and Chan allegedly had a dispute. Rumours suggest that the kick-boxing champ was hitting Chan much harder than he should have. Although, the pair dispute how exaggerated the story has become over the intervening 34 years. Nevertheless, it’s easy to imagine a real life tension between the two as the blows look powerful enough to make you wince.
However good some of the fights are, the film is not completely a feast for the eyes during its entire 107 minutes. The wheels come off this particular meal whenever the slightly dated comedy fails to land – which happens more often than we are accustomed to with Hung and Chan at the helm. Wheels on Meals is considered one of the pair’s most underrated classics, yet by the midway point, the character and humour in the early part has dwindled to a shallow, bland morsel of what it promised. The lull kills much of that enthusiasm, before redeeming itself in the final 20 minutes or so.
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It’s worth mentioning how strong this new 2K restoration is from Eureka Classics. On Blu-Ray for the first time ever in the UK, the extras contain so many archival interviews with those involved, from Sammo Hung to action choreographer Stanley Tong (although interviews with Jackie Chan are conspicuous by their absence). It also contains so many blooper-reels – including a Japanese ‘alternative’ end credits sequence – and more audio options that you can shake a stick at. There’s even a custom audio option featuring the original Cantonese dialogue track mixed with the alternate soundtrack from the international release.
The release is a movie collecting nerd’s dream. The presentation is as strong as ever from Eureka and despite those minor shortcomings from the hour-point onwards, Wheels on Meals remains one of the best examples of Cantonese comedy inspired by the greats.
Wheels on Meals is available now from Eureka Classics. Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.