Sunday 3 December 2017

Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen


Charlie Chan and the
Curse of the Dragon Queen

USA 1981 Directed by Clive Donner
101 Films Blu Ray Zone B

So after 47 US made movie adventures... Charlie Chan returned to the big screen, 32 years after the last movie, The Sky Dragon (reviewed by me here) and following in the wake of both live action and cartoon TV shows. And it’s such a shame how Charlie Chan And The Curse Of The Dragon Queen turned out, to be honest.

What we have here is a film which seems almost completely wrongheaded in its approach and, if it’s in any way memorable, then I suspect it’s probably for the wrong reasons. It’s unfortunate that a movie with such a good cast turned out so... well it’s not totally unwatchable and it’s not without its charm but there’s nothing really to save this mess, in all honesty.

We have Roddy McDowell, the tragic Rachel Roberts in her last role before she killed herself (indeed, another actress was apparently in reserve for the role in case her mental health issues meant Roberts couldn’t finish shooting), Angie Dickinson as the titular Dragon Queen (who’s not given all that much to do, to be fair), Lee Grant, Brian Keith playing an over-the-top police chief (he was apparently nominated for a ‘stinker’ award as worst supporting actor for this but I think, considering the tone of the film, he does what is required) and it’s also a very early, not quite her debut, cinema feature for Michelle Pfeiffer, playing the fiance of Charlie Chan’s grandson.

We also have Richard Hatch playing said grandson of Charlie Chan, Lee Chan Jr. And yes, that Richard Hatch... famous for only a year or two earlier being Captain Apollo in Battlestar Galactica. He’s seen here hamming it up something terrible and that highlights one of the problems of this movie, actually, rather than the actors in it. It’s an out and out comedy version of Charlie Chan, not a serious mystery with occasional moments of humour or high comedy like the earlier films (depending on if you were watching a Warner Oland, Sydney Toler or Roland Winters version of the character).

And then we have Charlie Chan himself. Just a few years after his first of many appearances playing one of Agatha Christie’s key characters, Hercule Poirot, we have the great Peter Ustinov himself playing Charlie... once again continuing the great American tradition of having anyone else other than someone of the authentic racial background playing the famous detective. Ustinov is a great actor but he’s not really given much of a chance to shine here and seems to be kinda walking around the movie just staying out of the way of everyone else’s comic antics whilst trying to keep his dignity, for the most part. To his credit, he plays Chan straight but also not quite like any of his illustrious predecessors... although I was pleased to hear him use the phrase “Contradiction please!” at one point towards the end. However, since the character is pretty much the only straight, down to earth character in it, he’s not really pushed into the foreground as much as you might expect for something which is, after all, supposed to be a Charlie Chan movie. In fact, quite a lot of the time, the film comes off more as a Lee Chan Jr movie, as Richard Hatch’s Number One Grandson and his on screen fiance seem to be taking up large amounts of the movie themselves.

The film starts off with a credits sequence which is the only time Peter Ustinov gets to go to town with the comedy shenanigans... and I wish he hadn’t. He sings a ‘funny song’ over the titles and it’s truly abysmal... I was glad I only paid a fiver for the Blu Ray already at this point in the proceedings. We then switch to black and white footage of the end of ‘a previous case’, many years ago, and captioned “Then”. This is where we see Charlie and many of the other characters’ first encounter with the Dragon Queen and then we jump to... “Now.” Everybody has aged except Charlie himself who, when he finally comes back into the story, hasn’t aged at all... even though the then 36 year old Richard Hatch character wasn’t yet born in the flashback sequence. This makes no sense.

And then the film is off in a blur of, for the most part, bland and almost unwatchable comic moments of exaggerated tomfoolery which are nothing like what a Charlie Chan thriller was about (and certainly not in the original novels) and everything about that old Hollywood convention of gathering a distinguished cast together in a completely ridiculous movie and then proceeding to have way more fun than the audience is ever likely to have. Strangely enough, we do have the character of a black chauffeur to the family but, unlike the well loved Mantand Moreland of the Sydney Toler and Roland Winters films, this guy is deadly serious and not here for comic relief... at least not the kind that Moreland excelled at in all his wonderfulness.

Now, there are some good comic moments here, in all honesty but... they are few and far between. The visual gag of having an acupuncture dartboard almost raises a smile and the running joke of Roddy McDowell dropping his cigarette ashes into the urn of the ashes of Lee Grant’s character’s late husband has a great pay off when she picks up the urn and exclaims “Oh my God Bernie, you're putting on weight!” Mostly, however, it’s full of duds and the amount of Chan style aphorisms which the writers have put in are way more than you would expect from the character, it seemed to me. Occasional gems like “Experience, good school but... sometimes fees high.” are okay but they’re so diluted by the amount of not so clever sayings that they never really hit home like they used to in the older, much more serious films.

Also, if a writer is going to have a character wishing someone a “very enchanting evening” then the lack of grammar on display does not leave me the impression that you are in any way a serious writer. Or was this just ad libbed on the set?

Throw in a few dodgy chase scenes which only my mother could laugh at (and she did... she was enjoying this way more than me) and you have a movie that fails to captivate or even raise more than a passing interest. There’s a nice little in-joke in a disco where Richard Hatch orders a ‘Captain Apollo on the rocks’ and one wonders if this is something that the writers put in or whether it was an ad libbed prediction, by Hatch, of the state his career would be in after participating in a movie which is bound to leave a bitter aftertaste in the mouth of the majority of Charlie Chan fans. My final word on the matter is, unless you’re a Charlie Chan enthusiast (in which you have to purchase this to finish off the series) then you are best steering clear of this mess of a movie, to be sure. Still keeping my fingers crossed that somebody tries to do the Chan franchise justice again some day but, sadly, Charlie Chan And The Curse Of The Dragon Queen is more of a miscarriage of said justice.

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