Chopsocky goes West in “Once Upon a Time in China and America,” with legendary Cantonese hero Wong Fei-hung besting bullets and braves in a cross-cultural actionfest. Though this doesn’t rank with the best early entries in the “Once Upon a Time in China” series, this sixth outing could turn a few silver dollars in specialized distribution on novelty value alone, with some recutting and a new soundtrack.
The combo of veteran Sammo Hung as director and Jet Li returning to the role he created (after absenting from “IV” and “V” following a dispute with producer-director Tsui Hark) resulted in rosy B.O. when pic opened in Hong Kong in February, putting the franchise back on track after the poor showing of “IV” and flop of “V.” The result however, is very different from the franchise Tsui created, with its ongoing emphasis on a conservative Chinese caught on the cusp of change as his country enters the modern, industrialized 20th century.
Hung ditches Tsui’s fascination with new-fangled gadgetry and the clash of East and West for straightforward action and character comedy. In “China and America,” the cowboys are all sniggering racists and the Indians straight out of a Republic quickie. Cross Mel Brooks with Jackie Chan and you get some idea of the result, which isn’t likely to win friends among the correct lobby.
Story has healer-cum-martial artist Wong (Li) traveling to San Francisco to check out the Stateside branch of his Po Chi Lam clinic, headed by old friend So (Chan Kwok-pong). En route, he’s separated from his traveling companions — fiancee Aunt Thirteen (Rosamund Kwan) and sidekick Seven (Xiong Xinxin) — suffers mild amnesia and is taken in by some Indians. Meanwhile, all the Chinese are getting a hard time from the local mayor and end up framed for a bank robbery by loony bandit Black Bart (Australian martial artist Joe Sayah). Their only supporter is gunfighter Billy (Jeff Wolfe), until Wong regains his memory and hits town.
The script, credited to no less than six writers, is short on overall shape and invention, and often seems like it was made up as the filmmakers went along (which it partly was). Also, the mix of English and Cantonese is not as smooth as in recent H.K. pics like “First Option,” with dubbing sometimes awkward and many of the linguistic jokes not really translating. Though ostensibly set in San Francisco, the town looks more like a Wild West stagepost.
The picture scores in its well-drawn supporting players, especially series regular Xiong Xinxin as Wong’s pugnacious, battling sidekick and Wolfe as the laid-back, sympathetic gunslinger. Kwan, in her fifth outing as the love interest, gets more to do but still comes over as rather bland.
However, when Li is onscreen and the stunts are in full flow, the movie is an enjoyable ride, notably in the opening reel with some acrobatic stagecoach shenanigans, Li vs. Xiong in the middle, and the final face-off between Li and Sayah. Pic was shot in and around Bracketville, Texas, late last year amid many working problems between the H.K. and various U.S. crews, though none of this shows up in the finished result, which has a standard H.K. look. Chinese title means “Wong Fei-hung: The Brave Lion Goes West.”