There's some debate among Hong Kong action fans as to who is the better fighter, Jackie Chan or Jet Li. But there's definitely no mistaking one for the other.
While it's easy to overlook Chan — possibly the most physically gifted comedian since Harold Lloyd — because he makes martial-arts combats and wild stunts look so easy, Li's films often use special-effects that obscure some of his incredibly limber moves.
In "Once Upon a Time in China and America," the sixth part of a film series about legendary 19th century Chinese hero Wong Fei-hung, director Sammo Hung wisely allows Li and his willing cohorts to do most of their fighting without special effects — at least, fewer than we're probably used to seeing in his movies. And both Li and the audience benefit.
However, there's also a little less plot than in the previous films. What story there is in this light-hearted action piece exists only to introduce Wong Fei-hung into the Old West and then watch the glorious mayhem that ensues as he fights both cowboys and Indians.
As the film begins, Wong, his fiancee Auntie Yee (Rosamund Kwan) and his manservant Seven (Hung Yan Yan) are headed from Hong Kong to San Francisco to visit the new clinic and school opened by Sol (Richard Ng), one of his former students.
But en route, their stagecoach is ambushed by Indians, and Wong becomes separated from his companions. While the now-amnesiac, martial-arts master is lost, Yee and Seven find Sol, as well as Billy (Jeff Wolfe), a charismatic gunfighter who just might be one William Bonney, aka Billy the Kid.
Of course, Wong does meet up with his friends (after bonding with one of the local Indian tribes). He also helps solve a mysterious bank robbery — after fighting the bandits' tough-guy leader (Joe Sayah).
As mentioned, the plot is scanty and there is some racial stereotyping that will probably make audiences cringe. But the action is almost nonstop and quite dazzling — especially the breathless opening sequence and the thrilling finale, which involves guns, handcarts, spurs and even a windtower.
Li certainly hasn't looked quite this good in a film for a while. Credit Hung, a longtime Chan sidekick and a Hong Kong action star in his own right, who seems more apt to ape Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West" here than he does his predecessor on this series, Tsui Hark — although the Li-Sayah fight looks like Hark (who co-wrote and produced) may have given some guidance.
"Once Upon a Time in China and America" is not rated, but would probably receive a PG-13 for kung-fu violence and violent gunfights, some gore and a few profanities and racial epithets, as well as some vulgar jokes and references.