Once Upon a Time in China and America | Chicago Reader

Once Upon a Time in China and America

The adventures of Asian pioneers in the Wild West could generate a worthwhile epic, but this isn't it. Skilled in martial arts and traditional medicine, Wong Fei-hong (Jet Li) travels to America and lands in a frontier town that producer Tsui Hark and his writers must have dreamed up after seeing one too many spaghetti westerns. Though the plot hardly matters, Wong battles racist cowboys, befriends Native American braves, and mediates squabbles among Chinese immigrants, all the while maintaining his noble composure. This 1997 release is the sixth in a series following this turn-of-the-century Cantonese folk hero, but the patriotic fervor that animated the first three is long gone, replaced by lame jokes and mildly offensive stereotypes. Every 15 minutes or so a dazzling fight sequence, staged by director and Jackie Chan sidekick Sammo Hung, showcases Li's athletic grace (and rescues the film from his acting). A rapid-fire showdown matches him with Hung Yan-yan, the most agile martial artist in films today, and the giddy excess of the climactic slugfest evokes the film's patron saint, Sergio Leone. But for the most part, this is a sure sign that the Hong Kong cinema has run out of steam.

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