The era is nearing the end of the Ming Dynasty in China, and a princess is brutally raped and murdered by the wicked Fung San (Yuen Wah), right under the nose of the Emperor's military commander Fong Sau-Ching (Yuen Biao). Ching is in disgrace and is ordered to be executed, but at the last moment the Emperor has a change of mind and offers him twenty days to track down Fung San and bring him to justice. This proves tricky as Fung San, Ching's older brother and fellow ex-monk, and has set his sights on stealing the black jade Buddha which, when combined with the artefact known as the Wheel of Life and Death, will propel him to any time period he wishes. And so it is that the two adversaries meet with unexpected consequences...
Well, not all that unexpected I suppose if you've seen Highlander, which The Iceman Cometh was compared with when it was released. You'll have guessed by now that this isn't the Eugene O'Neill The Iceman Cometh, it's a different one scripted by Johnny Mak and Stephen Siu, also known as Time Warriors internationally and Ji Dong Ji Xia in China. As a fantasy it starts off fair enough, with its hero and villain trading insults in a snowy landscape after the jade Buddha has done its best in transplanting them to another century, but we're not sure which when they both of them topple into a ravine in the midst of combat where they have both been injured.
What happens next is that an expedition of scientists from a Chinese university uncover two frozen bodies when one of the researchers takes a tumble into their resting place. It is here we realise that the story, hitherto perfectly straight faced, will not be taking itself too seriously when one scientist suggests that the fact that the two perfectly preserved bodies are in an embrace means proof of homosexuality in the China of three hundred years ago. More goofy scenes follow when the bodies are taken to Hong Kong, stored and almost stolen by a group of idiot crooks, leading to the both of them being thawed out.
Yuen Biao proves an engaging figure as he embarks on a fish out of water storyline familiar since Tarzan's New York Adventure back in the nineteen-forties. At first mistaken for one of the homeless, he gets himself some more modern clothes and stumbles across a prostitute calling herself Sister (a chain-smoking Maggie Cheung) who is reluctantly the victim of a sado-masochist in the back of his car. Believing that she is being attacked by a pervert (not an unreasonable presumption), Ching "saves" her, beats up the pimps and she takes him to her apartment as a bodyguard. What follows is a lot of broad comedy as Ching acclimatises to the wonders of electricity and unwittingly drinking from the toilet bowl.
The trouble with The Iceman Cometh is that is aims for too many targets. For a long stretch in the middle it settles for laughs, which do occur to be fair, but if you were expecting a non-stop frenzy of martial arts action then you won't be satisfied with what's on offer here. In reality, there are only two or three genuine fights, and it's mainly the ones at the opening and the finale that are as spectacular as you'd be anticpating. The villain is offscreen for ages, and only shows up after about an hour to do more raping and murdering which doesn't sit well with the jokey tone of much of the rest of the film. Cheung in particular seems to be in another story altogether as her selfish would-be model fools the naive Ching into doing her bidding, only being drawn into the main plot when Fung San kidnaps her. But if you don't mind the uncertainty of style, the movie is well-acted and unsubtly amusing.
[The Hong Kong Legends DVD of this entertaining title features interviews with its stars, trailers, and an informative commentary by Bey Logan]