Again mopping up one of the features that the likes of Arrow Video and Second Sight presumably didn't want, it's 101 Films' 'Cult' line to the dubious rescue, returning famous detective Charlie Chan to B-movie prominence. Hurrah? Well, maybe not...
Parody and homage at once, 1981's Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen (the title is a misnomer, since there isn't one) was an attempt by Hollywood to revive the popular franchise (at its peak in the 1930s, when getting white people to play Chinese wasn't considered as racist as it so patently is). Except famous white man Peter Ustinov now plays Chinese detective Chan here, in this updated version. But it's draped in ironic parody now, so it's fine, presumably (it's not fine).
In spite of the title, the real star of the show is Chan's idiot grandson Lee (Richard Hatch), who aspires to follow in his famous grandpa's footsteps. Rarely outside of Some Mothers Do 'Ave Em do we meet a figure so brainless as the pratfall-a-minute Lee, who is understandably hated by butler Gillespie (the excellent Roddy McDowall) and roughly everyone else he meets that isn't his inexplicable fiancée (Michelle Pfeiffer). By the time Ustinov's awful racist caricature arrives to give us a break, it's almost a relief. Almost. It's like a Naked Gun movie in tone, pace and energy – but without the jokes – just falling over.
In addition to the shameful attempts to be the next Pink Panther, there's a stylish, effective movie reminiscent of John Carpenter's legendary Big Trouble in Little China buried under here somewhere, but The Curse of the Dragon Queen never lets it out, save for when its giallo-esque gloved killer is stalking about in the background. McDowell's sneering pomposity and Pfieffer's adorable earnestness win the film a few points in its favour, while there are a couple of gags that do hit home (it's worth it for the joke with a dog and a candle alone), but beyond that, there's little to recommend. At least it looks pretty, on fully restored Blu-ray, but presented without any special features all you're getting is falling over in High Definition.
What strikes us here is that Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen is a movie that should have twice remained buried; the first time, when Clive Donner and his screenwriters were looking at resurrecting this franchise from the 1930s where it probably belongs - and the second, when the folk at 101 decided to rescue this rotten remake from obscurity.
CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: CLIVE DONNER / SCREENPLAY: STAN BURNS, DAVID AXLEROD / STARRING: PETER USTINOV, LEE GRANT, ANGIE DICKINSON, RICHARD HATCH, RODDY MCDOWALL, MICHELLE PFEIFFER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW