I may have already covered my favorite Kung Fu film for this column, but there are a few others I consider the “Cream of the Crop.” Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master 2, Gordon Liu’s Eight Diagram Pole Fighter: these are some of the best examples of what Hong Kong cinema had to offer throughout the years, but they lack something to put them over the edge. While not necessarily banking on star power (Lee was too new for that to happen), combining multiple of your favorite martial artists into one picture usually results in a slam dunk of epic proportions. That’s exactly where Wheels on Meals comes in.
The second in a trio of films that saw Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao collaborating together, Wheels on Meals is one of my all-time favorite films. It combines not only three of the best stars in China but mixes comedy alongside a weirdly disjointed plot that runs the gamut of emotions. You have a serious story about saving a girl from a life of crime, homages to 80s icons like Michael Jackson, and a pop song halfway through the picture. It’s a trip.
The main setup for Wheels on Meals is actually far less essential than I remember it being. Two best friends, Thomas (Chan) and David (Biao) run a food truck in Barcelona, Spain during the early 1980s. Being some of the few Chinese people in the area, they are sometimes subjected to racism but typically live a very happy life. Never forgetting their roots, they practice Kung Fu every morning so that if thugs come their way, they won’t be taken by surprise.
On the other side of the spectrum, Moby (Hung) is an aspiring detective that works for a pretty sketchy man named Henry Matt (Herb Edelman). Let me just say that I completely missed this random cameo back in 2005 as I hadn’t yet gotten into my Golden Girls phase. It’s really bizarre seeing Stan speaking Cantonese, but Edelman is hardly important. Anyway, Moby is tasked with finding a missing woman, named Gloria (Susanna Sentís), and her child before some nefarious goons get ahold of them. Without much explanation, he sets out, and the film kind of fumbles around for 30-ish minutes.
There’s some really bizarre humor after this opening segment. David’s father is a patient at a mental institution, so we’re treated to jokes that are a little outdated in 2020. I understand the intention wasn’t to ridicule people with mental illnesses, but it certainly doesn’t portray the main characters in the best light. David and Thomas do get one-upped by one of the patients, who despite being “crazy” is much smarter than them. He even mentions, “Just because I’m crazy doesn’t mean I’m dumb.”
Tasteless humor aside, the rest of the film mostly feels like a series of disconnected gags meant to play on the chemistry between its stars. In fact, in the last 40 minutes, an entirely different villain is introduced and the film shifts gears to something of a spy film. It’s hard to wrap your head around what is going on, but that is ultimately not the point. All three of these stars have produced work with far greater narratives, but none of them have provided as much humor, wit, charisma, or white knuckle action as Wheels on Meals.
That’s exactly what I was talking about when Flixist announced its newest slate of “The Flixist 15.” There’s just so much here that it can often be overwhelming, but does eventually fall into an incredible rhythm. Apart from weird jokes about leading lady Sylvia (Lola Forner) being a hooker, you can tell everyone involved was just having a blast. That’s likely why some of Chan’s greatest action sequences are contained within Wheels on Meals.
Lookup a list of the top 10 Jackie Chan fights and you’re bound to see “Chan Vs. Benny Urquidez” in the top five. While the two would face off again a few years later in Dragons Forever -the third of Chan, Hung, and Biao’s collaborations-, the final duel here is possibly the single best martial arts brawl put to film. I know I’m sounding hyperbolic, but it really needs to be seen to be believed.
The on-set story is also pretty damn interesting. As Urquidez explains, Chan liked to go full contact during filming to give his battles an air of authenticity, so he was required to wear a ton of padding to soften the blows. Since Urquidez was a prizefighter with an astounding win record (and was known for KOing people in a single hit), he couldn’t fully hit Chan since he likely would have killed the guy. Chan didn’t want to look too beefy on film, so he didn’t wear padding, further limiting Urquidez. He jokes that it was to make Chan look better, but even Chan states that he wouldn’t have won in a real fight.
That statement becomes more believable once you see the cut where Urquidez kicks past Chan’s head and blows out a row of candles. There are still disputes on whether or not it was faked, but the most detailed story comes from the Chan biography “Inside The Dragon.” Author Clyde Gentry III recounts that Urquidez was able to perform the trick, but couldn’t do it on command. As such, the shot used in the film was likely aided by a crew member…or Urquidez is just being incredibly humble because he could kill us in his sleep.
Another fun factoid is how both Chan and Hung were accidentally kicked by actor Keith Vitali during certain scenes. In one brawl, Vitali kicked Chan in the throat and broke character before the cameras stopped rolling to check on him. Hung got super pissed and Vitali believes the scene later in the film where he has a vase smashed over his head was written in as revenge. Maybe because of this, Vitali also kicked Hung in the head, but then didn’t break character. As he describes, waiting for Hung to yell cut felt like an eternity.
How about that title? What the hell does Wheels on Meals even mean? If you thought it was to avoid some copyright claim from the Meals on Wheels organization, the truth is actually far stupider. Production company Golden Harvest requested that Hung change the title of the film because its last two movies, Megafore and Ménage à Trois, were both flops. The executives feared that another film with an M as the first letter would spell box-office doom. Maybe because of that change, Wheels on Meals would go on to become the fifth highest-grossing film of the year (1984) in Hong Kong.
The location of the film is also pretty notable. During the 80s, actors in Hong Kong were becoming far too recognizable to pull off their usual shenanigans. The Hong Kong government was also getting stingy with permits for filming, so Hung decided to move the production to Spain. He was inspired by Bruce Lee’s Way of the Dragon, which prominently featured various shots of Italy. Hung wanted to avoid using the Golden Harvest studio for interior shots, so those were even filmed in Spain.
I could keep going on about these factoids (did you know that the video game Spartan X was based on Wheels on Meals? It used the Japanese title of the film, and would get adapted into the NES game Kung Fu), but one thing should be clear: Wheels on Meals is just an all-around solid film. It certainly has dated elements and could use some editing, but this movie is the end result of three professionals bringing their A-game and letting each other shine. No one star hogs the picture, with Chan getting to flex his comedic bone, Biao putting in some incredible acrobatic feats, and Hung showcasing a more classical style of martial arts. It’s just an outstanding time to be had, especially if you’re a fan of these actors.
While these stars may no longer be in their prime, I would love to see one last team-up film from them before their retirement. Chan and Hung would reunite in 2004 for Around the World in 80 Days while Biao would star alongside Chan in 2006’s Rob-B-Hood, but the three have yet to partner since 1988. It’s a crying shame, too, as they work wonderfully together.
I think that comradery is what draws me so much to Wheels on Meals. Either that or the ridiculous action sequences, which capture the best of Hong Kong action in a 104-minute runtime. Whatever the case, this film never fails to put a smile on my face, especially not when Chan is drop-kicking guys off motorcycles or trading blows with legendary prizefighters. Man, now I need to rewatch the film again.
February: Enter The Dragon
March: Come Drink With Me
April: The Prodigal Son
May: 7 Grandmasters
June: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
July: The Big Boss
August: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
September: Dirty Ho
October: Spooky Encounters