Years ago, Charlie Chan (Peter Ustinov), then the world's greatest detective, solved a murder case at an old dark house that hinged around the fork in the teacup puzzle. He correctly accused the so-called Dragon Queen (Angie Dickinson) as the culprit, and as she was led away, she placed a curse on him that would be inflicted on his family. Move forward down the years and Chan has retired, but his now-grown, orphan grandson, Lee Chan Jr (Richard Hatch), fosters ambitions to follow in his grandfather's footsteps. Trouble is, he's so clumsy that he is really no good at the job...
Actually he's so clumsy that he can barely walk across the room without falling over, crashing into something, or knocking someone to the floor - in any other film this would be a tragic drama about a young man suffering from some kind of debilitating motor condition, but in this it's what passes for comedy. What we had here was one of those detective spoofs that arrived after the success of Murder By Death, which by presumably no coincidence featured a Charlie Chan parody played by Peter Sellers, who equally by little coincidence was performing in his last movie, The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu, at the time this was being shot.
Ustinov took the Chan role here, but if you were expecting something as pleasingly daft as the 1976 effort then you were going to be disappointed, as every gag here landed with a deadening thud rather than taking off and soaring to comic heights. Chinese-American groups at the time complained about the film, thanks to the star being white and the character being Asian, but the filmmakers were not doing anything that the original run of adaptations of Earl Derr Biggers' character had not done back in the thirties and forties. Of course, even with a performer of Ustinov's talents, he wasn't able to make this funny, which was why people got sidetracked into the racism arguments.
As to the plot, unlike what were the relatively solid mystery stories of the source, offered up here was a rambling, barely coherent mishmash of setpieces that had very little to do with each other except that the same characters would turn up in them to remind you that there was supposed to be some kind of narrative to this, in spite of appearances to the contrary. It seems the Dragon Lady is now out of jail and up to her old tricks, yet although Dickinson is prominently billed, and her character makes up half the title, she was awarded about three scenes in this of mild significance, and one of those was an extended chase with horses and buggies where she gave way to her stuntwoman for most of it.
Therefore the big twist at the end, such as it is, comes as little surprise. In fact most of this barely registers as would-be hilarious roles left a talented cast high and dry: Roddy McDowall as a butler in a wheelchair, for example. Is he meant to be funny because he's in that wheelchair? He gets little material to work with otherwise, and Rachel Roberts in her final film before her suicide fares little better as a comedy schizophrenic, but it's Richard Hatch as the Jewish-Chinese-American Lee who was landed with the most thankless part. Director Clive Donner apparently thought that the more slapstick he piled on, the funnier this would be, with the result that Lee comes across as having some kind of mental health problem, but then nobody else was exactly grounded in sanity here, including a pre-fame Michelle Pfeiffer as his dumb fiancée. All except Charlie Chan, who moves through this barely tolerating the idiocy around him, spouting off aphorisms and being generally the worst incarnation of the famed character to date. There is one laugh: the dog barking out the candle. Music by Patrick Williams.