CHARLIE CHAN AND THE CURSE OF THE DRAGON QUEEN (PG) -- At the AMC Academy, AMC Skyline, K-B Bethesda, K-B Cerberus, NTI Landover Mall, Roth's Manor and Roth's Parkway.
The question to ask about "Charlie Chan and the Curse of the Dragon Queen" is not whether, as has been changed by Chinese-Americans, it is offensive. Of course it's offensive. The question is whether it's so thoroughly and frankly offensive in so many different ways at once that the offenses cancel one another out.
And the answer is, not quite. Perhaps the Chinese and the Jewish caricatures might. Chan, for all his fortune-cookie dialogue, at least has always been the most intelligent character in his films. The premise of this picture -- that when he solved the murder of a Jewish pineapple baron in Hawaii years ago, his son fell in love with the victim's daughter, and they subsequently produced a Jewish-Chinese-American who attended the universities of Shanghai and Yeshiva and who puts soy sauce on his box -- is not a bad one, as ethnic jokes go. (The murder aspect of the plot is negligible.)
Slightly lower on the scale is a routine about the butler being in a wheelchair. The character of a surly butler would be funny in itself, but the disabled element puts a nasty edge to it.
But even that isn't what ultimately spoils the film, in spite of some successful bits of business.What drags it down is a general spirit of self-conscious condescension, a superiority to the comedy manifested by constantly alerting the audience that the actors are aware how silly their characters are. The exceptions to this are the dumb young lovers, played by Richard Hatch and Michelle Pfeiffer with such straightforward enthusiasm as to be consistently comic.
Peter Ustinov, a past master of ethnic caricatures -- in a book called Ustinov's Diplomats he gets the whole United Nations at once -- seems to be talking from behind a mask. Perhaps the requirements of this role leave no character to interpret: Chan must be not only the great detective but also the movie celebrity, with a Charlie Chan festival playing in the neighborhood of the crime.
While he remains frozen, the others rush about frenetically as if to show what good sports they are at doing whatever dopey thing the script requires. Lee Grant as the Jewish grandmother, Rachel Roberts as the maid, Roddy McDowall as the butler and Brian Keith all follow this hit-or-miss method; for Angie Dickinson, who plays the Caucasian dragon lady, hit-or-miss would be a flattering exaggeration.