Author Mark V. Wiley’s script serves as the basis for Made In Chinatown, signaling the feature directing debut of Sammo Hung protègè Robert Samuels, next to co-director, Hollywood stunt veteran and actor James Lew in his return to the seat since 2006’s 18 Fingers Of Death!.
A light hearted and lean low budget production, Made In Chinatown dives right into its narrative, told in flashback fashion with a bruised Vinny Chow (Jay Kwon) donning a black eye, and desperate for answers from two homeless wise men named Wisdom (Shing Ka) and Knowledge (Geoff Lee).
Cut to the seedy criminal underworld that is New York City’s illegal condiments trade, where bitter rivalries between bosses Al Capella (Tony Darrow), Amadore Condimento (Vincent Pastore) and Hung Phat (Lo Meng) threaten to collapse the already unsteady peace meant to keep the city’s police commisioner, Sean O’Greedy (Raymond J. Barry) in power.
Seperate from their world and the underhanded criminal dealings therein, our hero, “Vinny”, struggles with a cultural upbringing he’s never really been able to connect with since childhood. For want of the affections of aspiring mob girl named Tina (Theresa Moriarty), and the respect of neighboring Italian mafiosos and strongarms, one day he decides to put on a show of initiative for Capella.
The stunt backfires, forcing Vinny to seek counsel from his friends, including best friend Joey (Timothy Chivolette), whose uncle Eddie (Tony Ray Rossi) works for Condimento who has a particular plan in mind, and needs someone of a certain look to do it. Enter Vinny, whose blind desperation proves opportune for Condimento while Vinny finally begins making a little headway with Tina.
Nonetheless, aside from the ire of his father (Fenton Li) and the lovelorn woes of childhood friend and artist May (Shuya Chang), his actions have also drawn Phat’s wrath, as well as the attention of city government agents Johnson and Johnson (Robert Samuels and Bob Martin), who intend to take down the illegal condiments circuitry and bring its ringleaders to justice.
Self-aware in its own right, Made In Chinatown sells exactly what it is, doling out humor in its mob caricatures and parodies of select genre tropes; The obligatory use of the word “fuggedaboutit” gets perpetual at times to the point where a drinking game would sort of make things interesting.
Its few historical deferences to Charlie Chan are intergral to Vinny’s tumultuous journey of self-discovery as an Asian American lost in societal translation. This particular plot aspect is less established at times in the course of Vinny’s expositional development than it could have been that it becomes less prevalent overtime, focusing more on Vinny’s travails with mob life, as well as with Tina and May.
Aside from actors Ka and Lee who share dual roles in different scenes, it helps that both Moriarty and Chang turn in solid performances for their respective characters, as do the supportives of Chivolette and Li, though it’s actor and martial artist Manny Brown who steals the show in the role of Lawrence, a gay theater actor who is one of Vinny’s closest friends, and an equally-skilled fighter when the moment calls for it. Other notable cameos include Wu Assassins actress Celia Au, and actor and martial artist Eric Kovaleski in his final screen role before sadly passing away in late February.
The action sequences, directed by Lew with assisting stunt coordination by Hector Soria, provide an ample, workaday showcase of Kwon’s burgeoning action star potential. The film’s penultimate fight finale between him and Meng serves as a noteworthy reward, as is the prospect of seeing two generations of martial arts entertainment perform together, with Meng, having long stayed in the game since his heyday on the Shaw Brothers lot. To merely suggest the 67-year old martial arts legend hasn’t lost his touch would be nothing short of an understatement.
The casting of Meng in a humble project like Made In Chinatown is, in itself, an achievement worth underscoring, on top having coralled numerous martial arts masters, including fellow kung fu cinema thesp and Shaolin Soccer co-star Chi Ling Chiu. It’s a film venture akin to Philidelphia-based Samuels who’s been nourishing local northeastern up-and-comers for some time now, and it gains results – a fact further exemplified in his contribution to New Jersey-based Joey Min’s 2019 outing, Yes, Auntie!, and you’re welcome to read my thoughts on why.
As for Made In Chinatown, its subpar quality notwithstanding, it bodes as a certifiable effort in the mob comedy genre with plentiful name talent to its roster, and as a martial arts hybrid with Kwon as its star. It falls flat in many select areas in writing and presentation, though it eventually makes it up to viewers with its own colloquial enthusiasm and guaranteeable fan service for the average martial arts movie buff with an acquired taste. It’s not for everyone, but it’s worth a watch.