After fusing their sizable talents the year before in the hugely ambitious Project A, the trio of titans known collectively as the Three Dragons (and sometimes the Three Brothers) reformed again to give us the hugely eccentric Wheels On Meals, a madcap comedy concerning two cousins who own a mobile restaurant getting tangled up in a plot that throws in an heiress, a bumbling detective and a surprising amount of Cantonese speaking Spanish people. The Three Dragons are, of course, the trifecta of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao; the three iconic martial arts filmmakers who dragged the entire kung fu genre into the modern day with their respective blend of lightning fast reflexes and a keen instinct for comedy that often felt like Bruce Lee and Benny Hill both went through the teleporter from The Fly and didn’t emerge as a shrieking globule of flesh begging for death…
Thomas and David are two ridiculously athletic chinese cousins living the bachelor life in Spain while they make a living from their state of the art (for 1984, anyway) mobile restaurant and occasionally do random good deeds, like beating the shit out of a bullying biker gang or shielding their bed-hopping neighbour from his vengeful wife. One day, while visiting his dad in a Spanish mental asylum (just go with it; the whole film is this bizarre), the two spy Sylvia, a beautiful woman visiting her aunt and are immediately besotted; however, later they run into her again and find out that to make ends meet she poses as a prostitute and then robs her clients and flees before the “deed” can go down. Amazingly, neither men seem to see this as a red flag and invite her to spend the night with them for shelter; but unbeknownst to them, Sylvia is the target of a search by numerous interested parties, chief of which being Moby: a novice private detective who realises that he’s not the only person who’s taken on this mysterious search.
It turns out that Sylvia is actually heir to a large fortune that is currently being eyed by her sword twirling uncle who is the one responsible for the waves of thugs that seem to constantly combing Barcelona for her and after she is kidnapped and taken to her castle homestead, David, Thomas and Moby all join forces to storm it and free her while engaging in some world-class brawls that blow the mind as they tickle the funny bone…
If you’re someone blissfully unaware (or somehow uninterested) of the historical importance of the three leads, then Wheels On Meals may very well and up being as frustrating as it’s distractingly flipped title (production company Golden Harvest was superstitious of titles starting with the letter M), however, the secret to enjoying Wheels On Meals is not so much to treat it as the action masterpiece that fans rabidly demand that it is and instead take it as a silly comedy that just happens to explode into full on kung fu nirvana during it’s final act. If I’m being full-on honest, it took me a while to “get” Wheels On Meals, and to be honest I’m still not all the way there yet. While Jackie Chan’s third act showdown may well be one of the greatest human endeavors since the moon landing and the invention of penicillin, I’ve always found it a bit of a slog to get there and since I can’t rightly award a film five stars for about five minutes of fight footage you can easily download on YouTube, I feel a little bit stuck.
Obviously the stuff in the finale is stone-cold flawless and even beyond that, Thomas and David’s day to day routine is honestly quite fascinating and our introduction of them memorably starts with the amusing visual gag of them emerging from separate doors after waking up only for us to find that it’s actually one big shared room they both sleep in like an ass-kicking Bert and Ernie. Similarly, their highly impractical meal-serving antics – which involve Chan taking and serving orders while casually whizzing around the town square on a skateboard and a food van that sprouts tables, chairs and condiment dispensers like an underachieving Autobot – also are genuinely charming.
Even Hung’s plot threads – mostly separate from his colleagues while he sports an astounding jheri curl hair do – are classic Sammo, with countless prat falls, endless jibes about his deceptive size and the man repeatedly showing off why he’s such a good action director when the plot allows.
So what’s my beef? Well, when the actual plot takes hold and Sylvia takes centre stage, oddly the film starts to drag when all you want is one or two more fight scenes to break up the slightly insipid farce a little. If Wheels On Meals had been the first movie starring the Three Dragons, maybe I’d have understood it as maybe they didn’t know exactly what they had to play with here, but as it came after Project A I’m just stumped a little. It’s not even an issue with the comedy, as their third collaboration, Dragons Forever, is a movie I utterly adore to death and that I feel is a far better showcase for their patented farcical violence.
However, when the finale finally rolls around, few would deny that the movie become poetry in literal motion as the trio indulge in witty ways to storm the bad guy’s lair that constantly trip each other up and each get a solo fight to show of their particular skills. Hung gets a slapstick-y sword fight with the main boss and Yeun avoids his attacker by leaping from sofa to sofa without seemingly making any effort to do so despite the fact they’re miles apart; but Chan predictably scores highest with simply one of the greatest cinematic one on ones you’ve ever seen since Iko Uwais and his fighting partner decided to redecorate a kitchen with their innards at the end of The Raid 2.
Trading fists with Benny Urquidez – an american martial artist that has a staggering win/loss record of 49-1-1 (39 by knockout, no less) – the scene is an absolute masterclass in fight choreography that sees Chan realising he can’t beat his opponent through sheer brutality alone and instead treats this life or death battle as if it’s merely a sparring match. Loaded to the brim with little cool touches such as Urquidez puffing out a bunch of candles with a missed kick or Jackie getting a little too casual and catching a fist full in the nose forcing him to desperately counter react, the fight has it’s own little story complete with a beginning, middle and end, has only a single cutaway (take that Phantom Menace) and is rightly held in dizzyingly high regard by anyone who sees it. In fact it’s so good, it makes me legitimately anxious about the rating I’ve given it, but as epic as Chan’s struggle with Urquidez is, my struggle with the middle third of the plot is far greater and I’m afraid I’m going to have to stick with my gut on this one.
While technically featuring a better final showdown, on the whole Wheels On Meals suffers in comparison to Dragons Forever and proves to be a three course meal made of a tantalising starter and an incredible dessert, but features a second course that’s tough to keep down.
For a movie that features plenty of kicks in the teeth, rating this 3 stars is one I didn’t expect to endure… sorry guys.