If you must have a Spanish travelogue martial arts movie, who better than Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung as your guides…
In the 1980’s, Jackie Chan could pretty much do no wrong. By 1984, he had racked up box office or critical hits like Drunken Master, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, The Young Master, Winners And Sinners and Project A. These last two titles have more in common with the title I’m going to talk about if only because they mark the start of Jackie’s love affair with the all out absurdist comedies he became known for. The title today is 1984’s Wheels On Meals.
The film is supposed to be about two friends, Thomas and David, played by Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao, who work in Barcelona in a high tech fast food delivery van/moving bar. One day they end up helping a young girl, Sylvia (played by Project A actress Lola Forner), avoid the clutches of a gang of men who seem hell bent and determined to kidnap her. Along the way, they cross swords with and later team up with a Chinese detective working in Barcelona, Moby (played by Sammo Hung), to take down both the gang and the man who hired them.
In actuality, this movie is about Yuen Biao, Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung getting to hang out in Spain and take part in hand to hand fist fights, acrobatic stunts, car chases and death defying brawls with the best in the martial arts film community at the time. From the ridiculous comedic moments to the all out slug fests at the end of the film, it’s clear we’re meant to have fun with this. Jackie has long known about his fans around the world and this movie is proof that he wanted to do something different than his previous efforts. Remember his all out amazing actioner, Police Story, was another year away from release at this point so going to the expense of shooting on location in Europe probably was a gamble. But the location adds to the feel of the movie because the places they picked for their fights and set pieces are great, feeling like a place you’d visit yourself but never see it as a place to stage a two-on-two or a two-on-four fist fight. And even with setting it in Spain, the filmmakers don’t really go down the Fish out of Water angle that Bruce Lee did for The Way of The Dragon and the non-Chinese cast members just act like it’s nothing special to having Asians in their midst. Jackie will experiment with this idea of culture shock to better effect in the Armour of God series. This allows the comedy moments a little more room to breathe. Sammo seems obsessed with getting his characters to do the dumbest things and also look foolish, but he always does so with a good heart.
Serving as dialogue director, Sammo gets the most from Jackie and Yuen in their interactions trying to outdo each other for the affections of Sylvia who comes across as half girlish crush material, half femme fatale. As well as that, Sammo drafts in some of the Lucky Stars cast in the form of Richard Ng and Stanley Fung and augmenting them with John Shum and Paul Chang gives an off-kilter “Wait, what did they just do/say?” motion to events. On the action side of things, Jackie and Jackie Chan Stunt Team regular, Cheung Wing Fat (aka Mars) direct themselves, the stunt teams, Sammo Hung as well as US martial artists Benny “The Jet” Urquidez and Keith Vitali in this ever increasing tornado of slick full contact fighting that starts off with Jackie and Biao fighting a gang of bikers (led by the late automotive action director and actor Blackie Ko) harassing the tourists and ends with an assault on a Spanish castle with a one, two and three on one sword fight and the mother of all fist fights between Jackie Chan and Benny Urquidez. Along the way, the trio destroy props, stands, cars, walls and sometimes innocent bystanders in their crazy bid to help Sylvia.
In terms of layout, cinematography and direction, the film is truly a product of its time with everyone wearing designer ties, clothes and watches and that must have clothing accessory of the 1980’s, the one piece jumpsuit. Having said that, since this is a HK production the usual trappings of the decade it’s set in are not here so people who can’t stand the era may end up staying to watch. Sammo’s in love with reaction and counter-reaction from his actors, a trait I believe he picked up from comedies from his own neck of the woods and Hollywood comedies as well. He loves taking the joke to its logical end but stops himself from overindulging. As to cinematography, DP Arthur Wong, Cheung Yiu-tso and Francisco Riba all add to the flavour with some of the best work done on the when out on location and in sets. When I say location work, I mean the wide angle shots on the plazas, open air courts, nighttime streets and the castle at the end. The stuff with Biao’s character visiting his father in the local mental hospital doesn’t really work in terms of look because it could be anywhere in the world, and the whole point of this stuff to sell the location.
All in all, Wheels on Meals serves three-fold functions. One, it is a great intro to the Three Dragons (Sammo, Jackie, Biao) and their films together which represent (at least in the Western world) the best of Hong Kong action-comedy cinema efforts in the 80’s and 90’s, notwithstanding the efforts of each individual actor. Two, it is in and of itself a fantastic gateway to Hong Kong cinema in general as it lets you only go in as far as you want while showing off some supreme martial arts displays. I can’t find a reason why someone who had never seen any Hong Kong cinema would not like this. And thirdly, it lets you into the world of the Lucky Stars which are films that increasingly let you into the often confusing (at least to me) world of Asian comedy without beating you over the head.
I found Wheels on Meals long after my love affair with the Three Dragons began so it was nice to watch this and still feel the magic. For people just getting into Hong Kong action cinema, this is a great film to start your journey.
Wheels On Meals is available on UK Blu-ray from Monday 18 March 2019 from Eureka.
Home media details
Distributor: Hong Kong Legends (UK) / Cine-Asia presents Hong Kong Legends
Edition: DVD (2006, reissued 2012)
Working from the original Hong Kong Legends 2-Disc DVD, we get a pretty competent transfer with the most work being done on the new 5.1 tracks for Cantonese and English, and the original Cantonese mono is also included. The English dub is a standard Golden Harvest dub from the 80’s in having neither the cheese factor of the Shaw Brothers dubs from the 60’s nor the more professional acts of the late 90’s onwards. The Cantonese track is another ADR recorded track so it’s likely that none of the actual cast are on this. Still, it’s nice. Plenty of satisfying punches and kicks to be heard so long as you don’t need any bass in your tracks because you won’t find it here. As to film transfer quality, I have no idea what the native Hong Kong or bootleg versions of this looked like so I’m going to say it probably is looking as good as it can without a high definition update. We get another excellent track from Mr. Bey Logan and he’s got his factbook out to tell us every little detail about the film, the cast, the people behind the camera and some trivia about the movie. For example, did you know the film’s original title was going to be Meals on Wheels and that Golden Harvest changed it after their last two movies starting with the letter M, Megaforce (which you all have to buy) and Ménage á trois, both failed at the HK box office? Great goldmine of information, is our Mr. Logan. After you’ve watched the movie, you owe it to yourself to watch it again with the commentary track on. Rounding out Disc 1 is a series of HKL trailers.
Did I say Disc 1? Indeed I did, because this is one of HKL’s titles that got the Platinum upgrade treatment. This should be differentiated against HKL’s Ultra-bit releases after Contender Entertainment bought the company. These releases should be avoided like the plague. The platinum releases on the other hand have what Wheels on Meals has in its arsenal. On Disc 2, we get interviews with Benny Urquidez and Keith Vitali, outtakes from the film and interviews with Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao and director of Jackie Chan films, Rumble in the Bronx and SuperCop, Stanley Tong. We also, because it was fashionable to interview him at the time, get the “wisdom” of Rush Hour Trilogy director, Brett Ratner for longer than five seconds which is enough time for any of us to suffer Brett Ratner. Thankfully, Bey Logan didn’t record the commentary track with Ratner. We can call it a small mercy, folks. I’ve had to suffer through three commentary tracks with this guy in the hot seat. I want those six or so hours of my life back. Better still, I want to have my memories of those six hours to be replaced with HKL commentary tracks. Make this happen, people.