Wheels on Meals (Platinum Edition) Review
Wheels on Meals offers a familiar blend of comedy and action often associated with the troublesome 'Three Brothers' and the most prosperous years of their burgeoning careers. As was often the case Sammo Hung takes on the duties of director and for this particular effort, features quite heavily in the acting duties alongside his cohorts Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao. Where this 1984 production differs from their previous and subsequent outings together is the location - with the film entirely shot in the idyllic city setting of Barcelona which immediately gives the genre they were so familiar with a new breath of life - and the introduction of some extremely talented international fighting talent including one of Jackie's all time famous opponents, Benny Urquidez.
The central plot is more developed than most action films of its time, as we are introduced to David (Yuen Biao) and Thomas (Jackie Chan), Chinese brothers living in Spain where they operate a food van service. As they go about their daily routine which involves regular martial arts training, dealing with their troublesome Italian neighbours (truly an international spirit within this film!) and running their business they come into contact with a beautiful but troublesome young girl by the name of Sylvia (Lola Forner). Out of the goodness of their hearts and David's innocent crush on the girl they harbour Sylvia - a petit thief acting as a prostitute to lure men in - and soon find themselves embroiled in her affairs which involve a private detective on her trail (Sammo Hung) and a group of thugs working for an unknown party.
Present throughout the feature is a mixture of physical and verbal comedy, with the majority very much in the vein of earlier Hui brothers’ efforts. This involves often simple, dialogue based humour reliant upon deadpan delivery, with the leads all very capable while the solo-sequences involving Sammo play more into his character's bizarre physical appearance and the fact he is clearly winging the investigation handed to him after his impromptu promotion in the private detective business. Likewise the mostly dialogue free physical moments of comedy call up memories of the Hui brothers with their reliance upon well timed entrances and departures by the leading men (often working against each other) coupled with circus-like theme tunes. From the opening moments showing Jackie and Biao start their day to the subsequent skateboarding and encounters with Sylvia these always work well and never outstay their welcome. This cannot always be said of the verbal comedy, with some of the humour either lacking to begin with or simply lost in translation (the hospital visits to meet Biao’s father within the film is a good example of some rather lacking comedy) but then some of it really is quite well executed.
This can mostly be found through the central characters, with Jackie and Yuen Biao in particular demonstrating a familiarity with each other in their roles as onscreen brothers to great effect, extending beyond the physical action to the occasionally inspired scripting that sees them finish each other's sentences and trails of thought regarding Sylvia through exquisite comic timing. The presence of Lola Forner in the role of Sylvia makes for some refreshing scenes that involve a more adult comedic outlook, something quite rare in a Jackie Chan film - let alone a film where he features in said scenes - due to the sparkly clear image he maintains. So even if the jokes and childish beating around the bush familiar to light drama in many Asian countries are the order of the day, what is here still proves to be quite invigorating due to the rarity in which we see it. And forgetting Jackie for a moment, no-one plays 'innocent' quite like Yuen Biao and it is his character that is called upon the most in this respect. A former Miss Spain Lola Forner is the perfect foil for Jackie and Yuen Biao's infatuations, naturally beautiful and distinctly European it's no wonder she was called back for Armour of God a few years later.
As with the majority of the three brothers early output the mixture of action and comedy throughout the film is fairly even, with numerous minor entangles and stunts in the form of natural athleticism on the trio's part par the course for the initial two thirds, while an inventive car chase involving the charming yellow mini-van they drive (a Mitsubishi of course) punctuating the story development's climax and the non-stop action finale that follows. Here the presence of Benny Urquidez and Keith Vitali should not be underplayed, with both putting in commendable performances as fearsome opponents for Jackie and Yuen Biao respectively, though it’s really the former encounter which sticks with you long after the film has ended. However entertaining the fight may be though it never quite offers the level of audience tension or obvious performance commitment as the second encounter years later between Benny and Jackie in Dragon's Forever. Combined with the unique manner in which the three brothers utilise three different methods of infiltrating the Spanish castle in which the final encounters take place, and the fleeting interaction of Sammo in the two central fights and his very own fight involving sword-fencing makes for an utterly compelling and thoroughly entertaining final third and should not allow any future efforts on the trio's part to deter any potential fresh viewers.
Released as a Two-Disc Platinum Edition DVD Wheels on Meals seems to have been in the pipeline for a long time now, but is finally with us and for the most part lives up to my recently lowered expectations of Hong Kong Legends.
The film is presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, complete with anamorphic enhancement and taken from a high-definition Fortune Star print which has been restored and remastered to a very satisfying level. Offering a clean, detailed image quality throughout there is very little film grain to speak of other than a minimal amount which is present in dark scenes, while the encoding shows no signs of macro-blocking or aliasing with only a minimal level of edge enhancement.
Audio is a slightly mixed bag with the original Cantonese (everyone in the film is dubbed, from Italians to Spaniards to Chinese and beyond, it’s a true sign of the times) available in remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 and the original Mono. Where the 5.1 is finely balanced and more than a little tame on the ears the original Mono is slightly harsh yet full of life, making it my preferred audio track. There is also an English dub offering in 5.1 (but not the original dub) should that be of interest, while the optional English subtitles appear to be well-timed and use a clear and easy to read font.
As for the extras, on disc one you'll find some further attraction trailers and an informative, well researched and always easy on the ear audio commentary from the man internet critics have long since run out of superlatives for, Mr. Bey Logan. The only real gripe is a technical issue, with the commentary going out of synch by around thirty-seconds towards the last third of the movie. It's also a real shame to think this is one of the last commentary tracks we'll be hearing from Bey, given that he's since moved on to pastures that are hopefully greener, though it really does depend on your opinion of the Weinstein company he has joined. Elsewhere all bonus features can be found on the second disc, and mostly comprise of interview pieces whose relevance to the film in question varies considerably...
The "Interview Gallery" kicks off with Sammo Hung in what is a short, disjointed piece hurt by the fact Sammo is obviously answering questions posed to him, only we never see them. Sure it's fairly easy to ascertain what the questions are, but his rather direct answers with little elaboration make this a very straightforward affair. Yuen Biao is next and fares somewhat better, offering more of a discussion with stories from the set than what Sammo's interview manages, but his time is rather short and doesn't allow for much depth. Next up is Brett Ratner, who obviously has nothing to do with Wheels on Meals but having directed Jackie Chan on two occasions has a tenuous link to this DVD release. Ratner speaks at length about his work with Jackie on the Rush Hour movies, and also discusses the on/off again third in the franchise, but there is little here you wouldn't have heard in the bonus features found on the Rush Hour DVDs. Rounding out the collection of interviews is another director, Stanley Tong, who once again has little to do with Wheels on Meals but can at the very least claim to have worked with both Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung on their earlier projects. Discussing his own background in Hong Kong cinema (like many directors in Hong Kong he paid his dues working his way up from stunt-man, to stunt co-ordinator etc) before going on to cover his work with Jackie on Police Story 3 and Rumble in the Bronx, and his efforts with Sammo Hung on the TV series Martial Law. Speaking in English Stanley Tong has plenty to say that will be of interest to fans of not only Jackie and Sammo, but his as well (being quite an accomplished director in his own right), though once again the interview's inclusion on this release seems something of a stretch.
In a section titled "Fight Club" you'll find additional interviews with the film's American imports. Benny Urquidez divides his time between offering up his mind, body and soul martial arts mantra, discussing his prolific career in the ring and then his move into films which led to working with Jackie and Sammo on Wheels on Meals and Dragons Forever. Both films are covered with the majority of conversation focusing on the behind-the-scenes interactions with the stars, giving us yet another perspective on the infamous proposal from Jackie for a fight in the ring, to Benny's general musings on the trio. There is a definite ego in here - as is to be expected from a fighter of this stature - yet Benny still comes off well though most of the footage has been seen elsewhere (such as the Dragons Forever retrospective documentary).
Keith Vitali speaks at length about his time on the set of Wheels on Meals, breaking down many of the sequences he features in while also offering his thoughts and opinions on the three brothers and his American counterpart Benny Urquidez. Eloquent and above all enthusiastic this is an engaging interview that offers some good insight into the film's production and the three brothers working techniques.
"The Cutting Room" offers two outtake reels totalling just under four-minutes. Neither offer any particularly outstanding footage, the first concentrating on the early motorbike fight sequence and moving on to show Jackie & Yuen Biao fooling around on their skateboards. The second reel shows Jackie taking some nasty falls after a stunt goes wrong before rounding up with some raw material from his final showdown with Benny Urquidez, which above all else shows just how fast and intense the action was.
Although it never quite measures up in all departments to their other efforts together - be it the sheer scope of Project A or the visceral action intensity of Dragons Forever - Wheels on Meals has a freshness brought about by the Spanish setting and occasionally daring comedy that makes it a hugely fun comedic action adventure that I suspect fans of Yuen Biao will appreciate a little more than the Jackie or Sammo diehards out there. Regardless of your preferred dragon though, Wheels on Meals is one for everyone to enjoy and this HKL Platinum Edition offers the best presentation currently available even if the second disc does once again manage to disappoint through its lack of focus.