East meets Western with Sammo Hung directing this kung fu cowboy film! Having skipped parts four and five, Jet Li returns to the role that established him as one of Hong Kong cinema’s biggest stars, Wong Fei-hung!
Former wushu champion Jet Li returns to the role that firmly established him as one of Hong Kong’s best known film stars, “Wong Fei-hung”. The patriotic, noble persona and authentic martial arts skills that Li brought to the character defined his career as a big screen hero. Popular actress Rosamund Kwan also reprises arguably her best known role as “13th Aunt Siu-kwan”. Rosamund appeared with Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao in “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Stars”, and again with Chan in “Project A Part II” and “Armour of God”. Outside of the “Once Upon a Time in China” series, she also appeared with Jet Li in the films “Swordsman II” and “Dr. Wai in The Scripture with No Words”.
Action actor, stunt double and fight choreographer Hung Yan-yan (sometimes credited as Xiong Xinxin) returns as “Club Foot”, a role he had played in the previous three instalments. Just like Jet Li, Hung was a multiple wushu champion and often acted as Jet Li’s stunt double. He had previously appeared in “Once Upon a Time in China 2” as the leader of the White Lotus Sect, “Priest Gao Kung”.
American martial artist and stuntman Jeff Wolfe plays a cowboy called “Billy”, who befriends Fei-hung and his travelling party after they rescue him from the wilderness. Wing Chun specialist Joseph Sayah appears as the villainous “Bandit Leader”. In the same year, he also featured in the Sammo Hung directed “Mr Nice Guy” as one of bad guy Richard Norton‘s thugs. TVB actor Power Chan appears as “Buck Tooth So”. As well as his numerous television roles he has had parts in many Hong Kong movies, including “Riki Oh: The Story of Ricky”, “The Banquet”, “The Final Option” and “7 Assassins”. A favourite face from many a Hong Kong action comedy is actor Richard Ng as “Uncle Han”. He has appeared in the “Lucky Stars” and “Pom Pom” series of movies, as well as “Wheels on Meals”, “Yes Madam”, “Millionaires Express”, “Magnificent Warriors”, “Miracles”, “Detective Dee and The Mystery of the Phantom Flame”, “Rigor Mortis”, “Skiptrace”, and even Hollywood blockbuster “Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” and the cult British comedy show “Red Dwarf”!
Wong Fei-hung, Club Foot and 13th Aunt make the journey from China to the Wild West of America to visit Buck Tooth So, who has opened a Po-chi-lam (medical) clinic there. While travelling by carriage through the wilderness, they pick up a friendly cowboy named Billy, who is almost dying of thirst. When the party stops to have lunch, a bunch of hostile Native Americans ambush them. During their escape their carriage slides off a cliff and falls into a river. 13th Aunt and Club Foot are rescued and taken to Buck Tooth So’s clinic. Fei Hung is saved by a Native American tribe but has lost his memory after hitting his head on a rock.
Back in town, the corrupt mayor tries to make life a misery for the Chinese people living there, something Billy tries to stop. Meanwhile, a rival tribe’s formidable warrior leader injures Fierce Eagle, son of the chief of the tribe that rescued Wong Fei-hung. To everyone’s surprise, Wong defeats the rival warrior and half of his men with his kung fu skills, causing the rival tribe to flee in fear. Wong is eventually brought back to the town where his companions attempt to help him recall his past.
The mayor is in debt and decides to hire a Mexican bandit to help him rob the bank, so that he can abscond from the town with the cash. The robbery is successful and the mayor frames Wong Fei-hung and the people in Po-chi-lam for it. The race is on to restore Wong Fei-hung’s memory, clear his name, and stop the corrupt mayor and wicked bandits!
Opening with some sweeping vistas of the American wilderness we are quickly led into an amusing language misunderstanding when Wong Fei-hung rescues stranded cowboy Billy. There’s a little bit of horseplay on wires as Jet Li leaps around the outside of his carriage to take control of it.
Our first proper taste of the martial arts we can expect kicks off when Native Americans ambush our travelling party. Wong Fei-hung leaps into action, with Jet Li moving as swiftly as ever, firing off familiar-looking split kicks and grabbing his umbrella as a makeshift weapon. Club Foot nearly steals the scene however, relying less on the wirework to perform his impressive kicks. He also later impresses in a Hong Kong take on a classic Western saloon brawl.
At the Native American encampment Jet Li has a swift skirmish but is surprisingly doubled for the vast majority of it. When his friends try to restore his memory, Li has a much better fight against Club Foot that references action scenes from the original movies. Hung Yan-yan does an impressive job of impersonating characters such as Iron shirt Yim or Donnie Yen’s Commander Lan to recreate some of the most memorable moments from the series.
In an extended, good old fashioned six-gun shootout, Jeff Wolfe demonstrates his considerable agility. It’s easy to see why he’s such a prolific stunt performer in American television shows and movies.
The final dusty showdown is the most intricately choreographed and the closest in style to the original films. As a result it’s the best fight of the movie, with Joseph Sayah’s villain proving to be a worthy adversary for Jet Li’s Wong Fei-hung.
Eureka Entertainment’s Blu-ray release of this movie as part of the “Once Upon a Time in China Trilogy Box Set” features a “Making of” featurette, with some fascinating insights from Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung. Although the lead actors mostly complain about the cold, Jet Li also discusses the nature of the character of Wong Fei-hung experiencing new cultures. Behind the scenes we get to see the US crew working closely with the Hong Kong crew, with each side having high praise for each other. Perhaps rather tellingly, Sammo describes how he sometimes has disagreements with producer Tsui Hark, and also has a bizarre full-on rant about actors who are only on set for a short time, making it difficult to accomplish some scenes. Perhaps this was a trend in Hong Kong at the time? On the whole though, it looks like in spite of sometimes difficult conditions, everyone enjoyed making this movie.
Pre-dating Jackie Chan’s “Shanghai Noon” by a couple of years, on paper this movie would seem like the ideal premise for Jet Li to make his comeback as Wong Fei-hung. However, I was quite surprised that with both Sammo Hung and Lau Kar Wing as directors (Lau Kar Wing was Second Unit Director) how much of the action was shot close up and choppily edited. Sammo had effectively already directed a successful martial arts Western with “Millionaires Express” and worked closely with an American film crew on this project.
The “Making of” documentary appears to reveal a passion for the subject matter and a production on an impressive scale for a 1990’s Hong Kong film. Somehow much of this passion and scale is inexplicably absent from the end product. Hollywood is arguably better at making cowboy films than Hong Kong filmmakers. Hong Kong filmmakers are arguably better at making kung fu films than Hollywood. This movie never quite plants its feet in either camp. Shanghai Noon succeeded because it was a Hollywood production injected with Jackie Chan’s personality and technical knowledge, as well as having an engaging co-star in Owen Wilson. This film falls short in spite of having some genuinely entertaining action scenes. If the action scenes were a little more grounded and presented with the visual flair of the first two films, and the non-action scenes were funnier or more entertaining, this really could have beaten “Shanghai Noon” to being a worldwide crossover hit.
If viewed without judging it by the high standards set by the previous films or the other works of the cast and filmmakers, there is still just about enough here to thrill and amuse genre fans.
- The film was shot at the Alamo Village, the film set originally created for John Wayne’s “The Alamo” (1960).
- Opening on the Chinese New Year weekend, Once Upon a Time in China & America faced stiff competition from director Sammo Hung’s own film, Nice Guy, starring Jackie Chan. It still managed to gross an impressive HK$30,268,415 at the Hong Kong box office, making it the second best grossing instalment of the series.
- The “Making of” reveals Sammo acting as an extra in one of the crowd scenes whilst still directing a Lion dance!
Film Rating: 6.5/10
Fan of the Once Upon a Time in China movies? Which moments stole the show for you? You can order The “Once Upon a Time in China” Trilogy Blu-ray box set which includes “Once Upon a Time in China and America” on Blu-ray from Eureka Classics and Amazon. Which other films set in the world of Wong Fei-hung have you particularly enjoyed? Let us know in the comments below! Like, share and join in the conversation on Facebook and follow us on Twitter & Instagram. (Whether you’re in the East or West, dial into KFK’s newsfeed this Xmas, grab a gift and subscribe for videos and…MAY THE FU BE WITH YOU…Merry Christmas from KFK!)