New York Times (reformatted), February 13, 1981
CHARLIE CHAN BACK WEARING A USTINOV MASK
By VINCENT CANBY
OF all of the pre-World War II pop artifacts that have recently been resurrected and recycled by Hollywood, the most welcome by far is Charlie Chan, the inscrutable detective created by Earl Derr Biggers and brought to the screen in dozens of low-budget movies, most often in the person of Warner Oland and Sidney Toler. Charlie Chan is supposed to be Chinese but, in fact, he’s as American as apple pie, Maxene Andrews and Chandu the Magician. As much as any other public figure before Pearl Harbor, he reassured Americans of their place in the world, solving drawing room mysteries in 70 minutes or so and dispensing wisdom that came straight from domestically manufactured fortune cookies.
Clive Donner’s ”Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen,” which opens today at the Cinerama I and other theaters, is a looselimbed, immensely good-natured entertainment that moves easily between parody and slapstick without ever doing damage to the memories of the character who, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, gained something of a following as a figure of camp.
Peter Ustinov, who carries on the tradition of the occidental Charlie Chan in this new, big-budget movie, photographed in glorious color, plays it comparatively straight, more modestly even than Mr. Oland or Mr. Toler, and thus provides the film with a center of gravity without which the lunatic goings-on would have no point. He is very funny and deserves the year’s self-effacement award.
The screenplay by Stan Burns and David Axlerod, based on a story by Jerry Sherlock, is a haphazard delight, which is not to say it offers a laugh every minute but at least a smile. More important, it has a consistently witty point of view, something lacking in both ”Superman” and ”Flash Gordon,” plus an appreciation for screwball characters with absolutely no reason for being or for doing nine-tenths of what they do.
The setting is San Francisco, being rocked to the roots by a series of crimes that the newspapers persist in describing as ”the bizarre murders,” so repeatedly that the adjective takes on the weight of a proper noun. The chief of the San Francisco police department, being at loose ends, calls Charlie Chan out of retirement to work on the killings, including one in an acupuncture clinic and another in which the victim, a musician, was fried by his own electric guitar.
The principal characters are Chan’s grandson, Lee Chan Jr. (Richard Hatch), a young man who is half-Chinese, half-Jewish and all thumbs; Lee Chan’s exceedingly rich and quite mad maternal grandmother, Mrs. Lupowitz (Lee Grant); Lee Chan’s beautiful, adoring fiancee, Cordelia (Michelle Pfeiffer), and the wicked Dragon Queen (Angie Dickinson), who was sent up the river by Chan many years before for the murder of Mrs. Lupowitz’s husband, Bernie.
Also on the scene and adding to the sometimes hilarious confusion are the late, great Rachel Roberts as Mrs. Lupowitz’s unstable maid; Roddy McDowall as Mrs. Lupowitz’s paraplegic butler, an ill-tempered fellow who serves at table from his motorized wheelchair, and Brian Keith, who gives one of the best comic performances of the season as the police chief.
Miss Grant has never been in better form than she is as the grande dame manquee, a woman whose loathing for Chan is never better expressed than in her haughty greeting, ”Welcome to San Francisco, Charles.” As Lee Chan Jr., the would-be detective who worships his grandfather and never reads a clue correctly, Mr. Hatch (of television’s ”Battlestar Gallactea” and ”The Streets of San Francisco”) is pricelessly eager and inept, qualities that go forever unrecognized by Miss Pfeiffer who, as the faithful Cordelia, is another find.
At times, Mr. Donner’s work recalls the ebullient slapstick routines of Blake Edwards, but the director, best known for such early films as ”Nothing But the Best” and ”What’s New, Pussycat?” also does very well with the parody. Be prepared for a quintessential Chan routine in which Mr. Ustinov explains what the script calls ”the fork in the teacup” routine.”Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen,” which has been rated PG (”Parental Guidance Suggested”), includes some mildly vulgar language.
CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN, directed by Clive Donner; screenplay by Stan Burns and David Axlerod, story by Jerry Sherlock; director of photography, Paul Lohmann; edited by Walt Hannemann and Phil Tucker; music by Patrick Williams; produced by Mr. Sherlock; released by American Cinema Productions. At the Cinerama I, Broadway and West 47th Street; Eastside Cinema, Third Avenue at 56th Street; 85th Street East, at First Avenue; Coliseum, West 181st Street and Broadway, and other theaters. Running time: 97 minutes. This film is rated PG.
Charlie Chan . . . . . Peter Ustinov
Mrs. Lupowitz . . . . . Lee Grant
Dragon Queen . . . . . Angie Dickinson
Lee Chan Jr. . . . . . Richard Hatch
Police Chief . . . . . Brian Keith
Gillespie . . . . . Roddy McDowall
Mrs. Dangers . . . . . Rachel Roberts
Cordelia Farrington 3d . . . . . Michelle Pfeiffer
Masten . . . . . Paul Ryan
Stefan . . . . . Johnny Sekka