East To West: Once Upon A Time in China & America

Three years prior to the “East meets West” hijinks of the Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson action comedy, Shanghai Noon, there was another film where a martial artist made his way to the wild, wild west. It was the ‘last film’ in a massively successful franchise and the talent in front and behind the camera is astounding – and it has essentially been an overlooked gem since it’s release. Maybe it’s not a fully overlooked release for readers of this site, but for more casual fans it’s certainly a forgotten diamond. Naturally, I’m talking about the oft misaligned Once Upon a Time in China and America.

When it comes to this foundational martial arts franchise, Once Upon a Time in China and America is a bit of a black sheep entry. Enough so that even in the most recent Blu Ray release by Eureka in the UK, the restored version of the film is added as a bonus disc while the box set is sold as a “Trilogy.” It makes sense to some degree since this is not the fourth entry into the series, but actually the sixth film and one that even follows a TV series. Still, after the series lost its leading star Jet Li, replaced by a decent run from Vincent Zhao, one would assume his return to the role of folk hero Wong Fei Hung should be more notable than history has treated the film.

A New Frontier

The concept behind Once Upon a Time in China and America is a double edged sword. While the other entries of the series starring Jet Li all have their feet firmly planted in a narrative formula, for better or worse, this entry works as its own stand-alone western adventure that just happens to feature the original cast. It’s a welcome sight for fans to see Jet Li and Rosamund Kwon, as his fiancé, banter around with the natural chemistry they have and the addition of a couple of his students, including Seven, round out the basic characters that the series can build on. The plot then simply asks the question, ‘what would happen if we threw our favorite heroes into the wild west?’ It’s easy to extrapolate on that.
Compared to the first three films, in particular the first two, Once Upon a Time in China and America falters in its ‘historically’ layered context and thematic weight, outside of flipping the concept where Wong Fei Hung and his crew are the outsiders in a foreign land of course. As a part of the franchise, the film lacks the depth of its initial predecessors. On its own merits in storytelling though, it’s quite the entertaining film even with its odd structure. Its dual narrative, where the first half sees Wong Fei Hung lose his memory and become part of a Native American tribe and a second half that sees the Chinese workers being blamed for bank robbery, feels like two separate scripts that were mashed together, but both halves are entertaining and executed well enough to be effective cinema that fans can sink their teeth into with little hesitation.

The Sammo Hung Of It All

The execution of the film is where much of its true strength lies. As a combination of the Wong Fei Hung formula and a western, Once Upon a Time in China and America delivers on the expected tropes for both. A carriage attack kicks off the film with some exciting stunt work and the film continues to blend wire supported 90s style martial arts with plenty of gun-toting shoot-outs and other western motifs. In fact, there is a hanging sequence in the third act where the platform explodes in one of the biggest explosions I have ever seen in a martial arts film and the combination is glorious.
Much of the sharp execution is due to Sammo Hung stepping into the director’s chair for the film. Lau Kar-Wing is also credited on this film and it shows. The combination of such an astounding duo of action talent allows Once Upon a Time in China and America to utilize the western setting to maximum effect without sacrificing an ounce of its Hong Kong martial arts pedigree of action and tonal bouncing. A prime example is one of the established villains. A renegade outlaw in black, complete with flesh cutting spurs for his cowboy kicks, has a fantastic duel with Wong Fei Hung on top of a windmill and a substantially kick ass bar fight. It’s a classic 90s kung fu fight sequence with especially strong choreography, but it employs western elements in a way to give it all a fresh feeling. The action is top notch, showcasing some stunning stunts and incredibly tight martial arts choreography, but it’s not afraid to lean into the uniqueness of its concept. For a film that could have easily been a shoe-in entry, Sammo Hung and team take it very seriously and deliver on its thrills.

A Right And Wong Way

Quite frankly, it’s a shame that Once Upon a Time in China and America has seemingly been left to the coyotes in this franchise. It makes sense that the original three are still the ones that fans fawn over, but this sixth entry into the series is truly a unique and highly entertaining genre bending combination worthy of another examination. It works as a charming Wong Fei Hung adventure and it works as an explosive western. Sammo Hung and Lau Kar Wing bring the break neck action and style while the returning cast, a welcome return for Jet Li in the lead role, deliver on all of the character breaks and key moments that fans expect too. While it still cannot touch the strength of the beginning of this franchise, don’t let this sixth entry gallop by on its way to further obscurity.

About Matt Reifschneider

Matt Reifschneider has been writing about genre cinema for over ten years with articles and reviews about martial arts films published at Blood Brothers Film Reviews and the official Shaw Brothers Universe website. He is also the co-host of the No Franchise Fatigue podcast.

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