Chinatown Connection (1990)

PLOT: Two cops try to figure out who’s behind a lethal supply of poisoned cocaine. Hijinks ensue because they're ethnically different or something.

Director: Jean Paul Oulette
Writer: Jean Paul Oulette
Cast: Lee Majors II, Yung Henry Yu (as Bruce Ly), Fitz Houston, Deron McBee

In the world of action cinema, Art Camacho casts a long and impressive shadow. A student of Eric Lee, Camacho rose the ranks from actor to action choreographer and finally got his chance in the director’s chair for legendary studio PM Entertainment. His is a legitimately cool story. Seriously! Have a read and get inspired. Before he could run his own set or show Ja Rule how to fight convincingly, though, he had to play bit parts in films like 1990’s Chinatown Connection.

Warren Houston (Lee Majors II) is a cop on the edge of unemployment after he destroys a church during a tense hostage situation. His dickhead lieutenant pisses all over the cocaine cache he recovered and the innocent hostages he saved in the incident, and puts him on a hot case with a new partner. The case? Figure out who’s behind the toxic street product causing a rash of cocaine-induced deaths. The partner? A detective named Chan (Yu) who runs an anger-management martial arts course for cops -- the brooding Estes (Camacho) is his latest student -- and prefers punches and kicks over using his firearm. Houston initially refuses, but learns in time that Chan’s relaxed veneer is a cover for honed street smarts, vicious fighting ability, and a probable love of baking.

Sometimes we trashy action fans sit around and wonder why certain films never made the format jump to DVD. This film is a perfect example for why that is: like other films similar in scope, size, and execution, it’s not good and rife with missteps. This film was originally slated for Ninjavember coverage, but I had to drop it off entirely because the sole ninja invades Houston’s home at night only to attack his furniture and personal belongings without engaging the target in combat. The rest of the film’s “ninjas” are just brawny dudes in balaclavas and t-shirts with the sleeves cut off. I mean, what the fuck is that? There are occasional flourishes -- a crackling line of dialogue, a decent supporting character performance, and Deron McBee (Malibu!) among them -- but this is the sort of film that merely exists and doesn’t make a serious effort to engage you on any meaningful level. Come to think of it, Chinatown Connection is a lot like my uncle Dave. Year in and year out, the guy just shows up to the holiday party, eats all the shrimp, and leaves without much more than a “hey, how’s it going?”

Many of my friends have quipped at one time or another that for them, cheese is “like crack.” Between the heart palpitations, loss of appetite, and aggressive behavior, a nice smoked gouda or baked brie certainly yields similar effects as the popular cocaine offshoot. In depicting a factory in which coke is smuggled in actual 10-pound wax cheese wheels, no film has ever laid this comparison bare quite so blatantly. It was a clever way to rework a tired action movie cliche that spoke deeply to me as a recovering cheese-lover. I assumed that Oulette’s French roots might have factored into this choice, so you can imagine my surprise when I discovered he was born in Boston, a city known more for its clam chowder than its clam cheese (if there is such a thing). That’s what I get for being vaguely racist.

Playing the treacherous Tony North is Fitz Houston, an actor, minister, flugelhornist, and owner of one of the great multifaceted IMDb biographies in history. For me, he’s also the best performer in the film. From a physical standpoint, Houston is a cross between Predator-era Carl Weathers (e.g. muscles and great polo shirts) and former pro wrestler Norman Smiley (e.g. unfortunate pattern baldness with mustache). This great look is trumped only by his ability to destroy wooden boards strategically placed on end tables. While one might think this would make him an ace for action scenes, he’s fond of low kicks to the shins, a tendency unbefitting of a man of his stature. Houston brings attitude to his line delivery and charisma to his interactions with the other actors, and this really distinguishes him from the rest of the cast, most of whom act like they’re placing orders for sandwiches at a corner deli.

Maybe it was the garden salad without dressing I ate for dinner, but the taste this movie left in my mouth was dull as dishwater. (Ever tasted dishwater? Shit is GROSS). The action scenes are marked by clunky choreography, the story is half-baked, and most of the actors seem to have left their powers of inflection at home. This may have been a case where my expectations were inflated by a trailer that portended something fun and trashy but turned out to be much too talky. Recommended only for Art Camacho completists, and viewers for whom the East-meets-West reluctant partner dynamic never gets old.

A tough get. I watched this on VHS, so finding a used copy on Amazon or eBay is your best bet.

2.5 / 7

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