By Richard Winters
My Rating: 3 out of 10
4-Word Review: Asian detective solves case.
Police Chief Baxter (Brian Kieth) summons the retired Charlie Chan (Peter Ustinov) back to duty in order to help him solve a series of bizarre murders. Chan is also reluctantly assisted by his inept grandson Lee Chan Jr. (Richard Hatch) who shows no ability at solving anything and only causes chaos where ever he goes. As the case unfold Chan is at first convinced that his old nemesis Dragon Lady (Angie Dickinson) is the culprit, but he slowly turns his suspicions onto someone else who no one else suspects.
This is a perfect example of a movie that could never be made today as it features a white actor playing the part of an Asian American although the film did meet with strong resistance even back then. Many Chinese Americans protested by picketing locations were it was being shot and then later demonstrated at theaters that played it. Their complaints hinged around the Chan character being a racist stereotype particularly his ‘Chop-Suey pidgin English and fortune cookie-like proverbs’ all of which were very valid points.
What’s even worse is that the Chan character is not funny at all and the film would’ve been better had he not been in it. Ustinov acts like he’s just walking through the role with no energy or pizzazz and his singing over the opening credits, which I guess is meant to be intentionally bad in an effort to be ‘funny’, comes off as pathetically lame instead and could be enough to make most people want to turn off the film before it’s barely begun. Keith as the exasperated chief is far funnier and enlivens every scene he is in to the point that he should’ve been made the star.
Hatch as the doofus grandson is almost as bad as Ustinov, but even more annoying as he creates all sorts of disasters were ever he goes, but is completely oblivious to the pain and destruction that he causes others, which makes him come-off to being too stupid to be even remotely believable. On the rare occasions when he does realize that his blundering has caused issues to others like when he inadvertently knocks a bunch of TV reporters into a lake, he makes no attempt to help them out of the water, or even apologize for what he did, making him seem deserving of a big punch in his otherwise blank-eyed face. I was also confused as to why, if he’s Chan’s grandson, he wasn’t Asian.
The female actors perform better here. I enjoyed Lee Grant’s rare foray into comedy. Her acting skills are more tuned to drama, but the scenes where she talks to her dead husband’s ashes inside an urn are pretty good. Rachel Roberts, in her last theatrical film before her untimely and tragic death, is diverting as a super paranoid maid. Michelle Pfeiffer is quite engaging too as Hatch’s fiance. Her character is just as doopey as his, but she has enough acting skill to make it interesting and far outshines him, despite having less screen time.
The comedy is flat and has no focus to it as it alternates between slapstick and parody while haphazardly throwing in all sorts of uninspired gags that have little or nothing to do with the main plot and that includes a drawn out car chase in the middle that isn’t funny at all. It also features an ending similar to the one in Blazing Saddles where it becomes a-movie-within-a-movie as the characters run into a theater where a Charlie Chan movie is playing. However, this scene isn’t too well thought-out as it features Ustinov playing Chan on the black-and-white film that the theatergoers are watching, which makes no sense. For one thing the film being shown is an older one, so Chan should look younger on it, but he doesn’t. Also, why would Chan be playing himself in a movie? Isn’t he supposed to be just a detective, or are we to assume he’s also an actor starring in films when he’s not out solving cases? It would’ve been more amusing had Chan walked into the theater and saw another actor playing him on the screen and then started bitching about how he wasn’t doing it right.
There is one really inspired moment that is so cute it almost makes sitting through the rest of it worth it. I features Pfeiffer and Hatch tied up and being held hostage by a vicious dog who is tied to a rope with a candle flame burning throw it, which will then release the hound to attack the couple. In an effort to stop the flame from burning through they sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to the dog, which then gets the dog to blow-out the flame like a person would blow out candles on a birthday cake.
My Rating: 3 out of 10
Release: February 4, 1981
Runtime: 1 Hour 35 Minutes
Director: Clive Donner
Studio: American Cinema Releasing
Available: DVD, Blu-ray