Once Upon a Time in China and America (1997) Review

"Once Upon a Time in China and America" International Theatrical Poster

"Once Upon a Time in China and America" International Theatrical Poster

AKA: Once Upon a Time in China 6
Director: Sammo Hung
Producer: Tsui Hark, Dick Cho
Cast: Jet Li, Rosamund Kwan, Hung Yan Yan, Benny Chan, Patrick Lung, Johnny Koo, Jeff Wolfe, Chrysta Bell Zucht, Joe Sayah, Jean Wong Ching Ying, Roger Yuan, Richard Ng
Running Time: 99 min.

By Reefer

Once Upon A Time in China & America is a departure from the other five entries in Tsui Hark’s series based on the adventures of real-life historical figure and martial artist Wong Fei Hung. Except for some heavy-handed commentary on cultural unity and racism, this is on all accounts a full-blown action extravaganza that has more in common with Sammo’s 1986 film Millionaire’s Express than Hark’s work.

Filmed entirely in Texas with a largely American crew and directed by Sammo himself, OUATIC&A jumps from one action sequence to another with not very much in between, starting with a rousing runaway stagecoach scenario. At the conclusion of the chase, Wong suffers from, that favorite of cinematic devices, amnesia and is adopted by a struggling Indian tribe. Meanwhile, Aunt Yee and Clubfoot search for their friend as Bucktooth Sol’s Po Chi Lam clinic franchise is constantly under racial attacks from a town full of rednecks. That’s about all you have to know about the story, which is as loaded with contrivances as it is with wire-enhanced action.

Because of the setting and the nature of the OUATIC series, Jet Li and his friends get plenty of…gasp!…gweilo actors to contend with. Now HK film fans everywhere know what this means. But here, they are wrong. This film has some of the best white actors in HK film. The blonde gunslinger Billy, played by unknown Jeff Wolfe, is unexpectedly good as Wong’s tall, cocky ally. Plus, the mayor, sheriff and townspeople aren’t noticeably bad. They just aren’t given much more to do other than pick on the chinese and ultimately become punching bags.

The grand finale explodes onto the scene as Wong and his followers, a corrupt mayor, and a gang of vicious bankrobbers (whose leader looks like a vampire and uses his spurs in deadly fashion) all cross paths. Wong Fei Hung’s end fight with the leader takes a step towards absurdity but is so stylishly filmed and edited that you won’t mind it too much.

I have heard that normally fans of the Hark-directed entries (which I am) generally hate this final outing, but I must be the exception. In fact, I enjoyed this installment so much that I am surprised that they haven’t added a few more episodes to the mix. Here are some suggestions:

OUATIC&L (Once Upon A Time In China and London)—-Wong Fei Hong can scarf crumpets and then let his dental work go to hell. Maybe have John Cleese supply him with some cool gadgets and an Astin Martin. Clubfoot can learn to drink tea with his pinky extended.

OUATIC&SC (Once Upon A Time In China and South Central)—–Wong Fei Hong travels to LA to visit a colleague but the pollution clouds his senses and he spends the rest of the film teaching kung fu to Puerto Ricans. Aw, crap. I think Tsui Hark already did something like that in The Master. Nevermind.

OUATIC&TDOC (Once Upon A Time In China and The District of Columbia) AKA Mr. Wong Goes To Washington—-Wong can’t be president because he is a foreigner but they could make him in charge of health care reform or something. Acupuncture would, no doubt, get full coverage.

Side Note: This film is well-known mostly for the allegation that Sammo stole the idea from Jackie Chan who released an American western Shanghai Noon three years later in 2000. Seems that since Sammo pilfered his idea, Jackie worked in some details lifted right from OUATIC&A for his film. For example, Jet Li’s character finds himself engaged to a squaw just as Jackie’s does. A hanging sequence is foiled in both films. Each film has rednecks, bank robbers, and corrupt officials. One of villains (Roger Yuan) from Sammo’s film was even cast as the main bad guy in Shanghai Noon. There are probably even more examples than this.

Reefer’s Rating: 8/10


By James H.

Talk about trying to squeeze more money out of a franchise. Chasing in seems to be a religion these days, what with all of the sequels and remakes out there. This is where “Once Upon a Time in China & America” comes into play. It’s one of those films that just fails on all levels. I have not seen any of the preceding “Once Upon a Time.” films, but I guarantee they cannot be as bad as this.

In this, the sixth film in the series, Wong Fei-Hung travels to the good old United States of America and encounters all sorts of trouble, well, enough to keep him busy for 90 minutes. The plot is a little hard to follow, what with the subtitles being transparent and all.

The fights are, as always, the real centre of attention in this movie. They are filled with all sorts of outrageously bad looking wire-work. Not to mention, they’re sped up too. I don’t know how a film directed by Sammo Hung to turn out so bad. The fights aren’t exciting, in fact, some of them are down right laughable. And let’s not forget the kung fu cowboys. I’m sorry, but can this get any more inaccurate? Cowboys didn’t know kung fu, I ‘m sorry, I’ve put up with a lot of shit, but kung fu cowboys is where I draw the line.

This will, undoubtedly be the last in the “Once Upon a Time.” series. And if this film is any indicator, that’s a good thing. It was very low budget, and sadly, unentertaining. Oh, and the reason I gave it such a high rating is because I laughed at some of the wire-fu shit.

James H’s Rating: 3/10

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