Review: Wheels on Meals (1984)

At least the title is likely to catch an eye running down a list of potential viewing opportunities. The standard explanation for this strangeness is that the previous two films from the Golden Harvest studio that had English names beginning with the letter M had flopped, so the titular nouns were reversed to get away from the unlucky consonant. What the heck — a fun movie needs a fun title, and this one delivers!

Following in Bruce Lee’s footsteps with Way of the Dragon, Sammo wanted to go international with the filming of Wheels on Meals. The Barcelona setting adds some global flavour to the usual Hong Kong style, with plenty of interesting architecture shown off and some Spanish-inspired music used in the soundtrack. It all probably seems a bit ridiculous to people living in Spain though, starting with the fact that everyone speaks Chinese! Authorities were also very accommodating — which was another reason for filming there — even allowing the portrayal of a red-light district and a sewer populated by the homeless.

Thomas (Jackie Chan) and David (Yuen Biao) own a bright yellow food van called Everybody’s Kitchen, from which they ply their trade around the sunny Barcelona streets and plazas. When they both take a shine to local woman Sylvia (Lola Forner), trouble is on the menu. There’s more to Sylvia than the men realise and more than Sylvia herself realises too. This mystery is the reason private detective Moby (Sammo Hung) has been tasked by a man of unknown motive with tracking her down.

The first time I watched Wheels on Meals I was disappointed. I had heard the action was great, and while the climax delivers some of the finest fisticuffs around, it’s a slow build before we finally get there. Apart from a zany car chase packed with impressive stunt driving and the ending sequence, most of the action is contained in chunks of around a minute. The main fighting antagonists are even teased twice, with two short brawls before we really get to see them cut loose at the end. The advantage of this is that rather than alternating the comedy and action scenes, they blend together more consistently as a whole, and when we do arrive at the big finale, we’re well and truly ready to see everybody throw down.

Thomas, David and Moby have to sneak into the castle where the bad guys are holed up. It’s a ball, full of great stunts, sight gags and one rather brutal baseball bat to the face that does stand out in an otherwise light-hearted film. The whole scene is helped immensely by being filmed in an actual castle and not a fake-looking set. When subterfuge fails, the direct approach comes to the fore and it’s a hard-hitting treat.

As an action director Sammo Hung excels at making other people look good. He unselfishly makes his opera school buddies the action stars of this film and for the final showdown brings out some of their best work, as well as capitalising on the strengths of the western fighters they are pitted against.

Jackie squares off against Benny Urquidez in what is still touted as one of the best one-on-one battles put to celluloid. In his autobiography back around the turn of the millenium, Jackie rated this his own top screen fight. In any case, it’s definitely impressive. Benny brings a real ferocity to the fight, no doubt drawn from years of fighting in the ring and Jackie matches his intensity well, dropping most of his usual clowning attitude. While not too flashy, the filming and editing makes every move incredibly clear, allowing the pacing and rhythm of the choreography to shine. There’s quite a few real hits in there too, ensuring the impact is fully felt.

Yuen Biao squares off against Keith Vitali, an American schooled in karate. It’s shorter than the Jackie vs. Benny fight, but the two work well together, even if a lot of it is Vitali trying to keep up with Biao’s acrobatic flipping and tumbling.

Sammo himself gets to face up to the main villain (José Sancho), mixing some quasi-traditional Chinese-style weapon forms with western fencing. Look closely and you’ll see Yuen Biao doubling Sancho for much of the time behind the fencing mask, so he sort of gets two end fights, even if his character only gets one. Sammo lets his character come off as clearly outclassed, before the other two arrive to tip the balance in a Three Musketeers moment that is probably the most fitting onscreen tribute to the three opera school brothers there is.

Despite the relative lack of big ticket action sequences, there’s hardly a dull moment through the film. Absurd stuff appears at every turn — Sammo drinking from a fountain like a fish, aprons worn as shirts, silly disguises, a Chinese bikie gang in Barcelona and retina-searing colours everywhere the camera looks. (The costuming in this film is incredible — plus Sammo rocks a perm.) Some aspects could be seen as insensitive, like the patients at a mental hospital (cameo appearances from actors including Wu Ma, John Sham and Richard Ng) and the use of some broad racial stereotypes, but given the overall light and comedic tone it’s hard to take offense. Wheels on Meals is colourful, it’s funny and it wants you to have a good time — and you probably will.

8.5 superstitious titles out of 10.
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