"Once Upon a Time in China" is a truly bizarre homage to Sergio Leone's '60s Westerns kung fu style and it's not to be missed by fans of wild adventure.
This movie has everything slapstick comedy, melodramatic subplotting and even a story of sorts. But the real reason to see "Once Upon a Time in China" is for the balletic, intricate and often incredible stunt work during the action scenes.
Star Jet Li plays Master Wong, a martial arts instructor in 19th-century China whose school is also some kind of medical clinic. The local townfolk look to him for help when local drug dealers start demanding protection money and American sailors begin kidnapping women for prostitution in the States.
Wong is also dismayed at Western influences that are taking over, demonstrated most prominently by his love interest, Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan). Then there's that other kung fu master who wants to challenge Wong and who seems to be something of a good guy until he aligns himself with the drug-runners.
The plot is complicated and gets rather confusing in places. Part of this confusion is probably a cultural crossover problem. But some of it has to do with a missing reel, dropped from the original film to keep it under two hours for American audiences. (You know it's a low-budget effort when they simply drop a reel instead of re-editing the film.)
The subtitles for this Mandarin-language effort are a bit difficult to read, since the English is in small print below the more prominent Chinese subtitles. But when the action kicks into gear, forget them and just watch the graceful choreography of the fight scenes.
In fact, the astonishing hook-and-ladder battle alone is worth the ticket price. (There's also a terrific umbrella sequence.)
And for these fight scenes, we're talking extended takes without stunt doubles. Clearly the actors are doing all of this stuff, thrillingly captured by the wide-screen cameras of director Tsui Hark. Now, there's a name to watch for in the future.
"Once Upon a Time in China" is not rated but would probably get a PG-13 for the violence, which is bloodless until the final reel when gunplay brings on some gore. There are also a few scattered profanities.