Written by Eric Tsang, Edward Tang and Barbie Tung
Directed by Lau Kar-leung
Hong Kong, 1994
Unofficially a sequel to the 1978 hit Drunken Master, The Legend of Drunken Master (the original Cantonese title being Drunken Master II even though the film does not follow up on the storyline of the first one) opens in mainland China at the turn of the 20th century. Wong Fei Hung (Jackie Chan), one of the great proponents of the misunderstood drunken boxing, returns home via train with his renowned doctor father Wong Kei Ying (Ti Lung) and family servant (Cheung Chi-Gwong). Whilst trying to smuggle himself into the first-class compartment, Fei Hung notices a man, a former army colonel named Master Fu Wen-Chi (director Lau Kar-leung), stealing a precious box, prompting Fei Hung to give chase. When his skirmish with the elder man concludes and Fei Hung returns to the train just as it departs, he discovers the contents of the box: an ancient imperial artifact. It soon becomes apparent that the British are trying to export important physical specimens of Chinese culture out of the country for museums. Fei Hung and several friends eventually come to realize that the preservation of said artifacts rests on their shoulders, with Fei Hung leading the way, equipped with his legendary drunken boxing fight style.
Often heralded as one of the great Jackie Chan films, not to mention of the great martial arts films of all time, The Legend of Drunken Master is a memorable romp of an adventure, one with a few questionable storytelling choices, but an impressively entertaining feature nonetheless. Anyone who has seen a couple of Chan’s films knows full well that, unlike some of his contemporaries who earned stardom through the kung fu genre, the actor-stuntman always has a penchant for the comedic potential of both fight scenes and story. No, fighting is not funny in principle. It is supposed to be taken with the utmost seriousness because people can get badly hurt. Chan flips that notion on its head by relishing in the potential zaniness found in intricate stunt choreography both with respect to the movements of the attacker and the effects the punches and kicks have on their targets. The result, as perfectly exemplified in The Legend of Drunken Master, is a comedic ballet where dancing is replaced with men and occasionally woman beating each other up senseless.
Adding to the fun is that Chan’s character is one of the rare practitioners of the oft-mocked drunken boxing style. The protagonist does make use of this surprisingly effective fighting style in the early going, pretending to sway side to side lazily like a drunkard losing his faculties, lankily launching his fists and feet towards assailants with sneaky ferocity. In these early scenes, Fei Hung engages in contests without the secret weapon that truly makes drunken boxing the special martial art it is known for: alcohol. Rest assured, dear viewers, at about the midway point in a scene where cronies from a nearby factory (employed by the aforementioned British embassy) try to steal the imperial stone from Fei Hung’s rambunctious mother-in-law Ling (Anita Mui), the hero puts on one of the wildest displays of fighting prowess ever put to screen as Ling tosses bottles of wine his way. With each sloppy gulp, Fei Hung’s abilities grow all the more potent as he knocks down the five goons trying to put him down. It is one of the most athletically and comically impressive action scenes viewers will get the chance to watch, equaled (and perhaps surpassed) by the same film’s climactic battle in a metallurgical factory where Fei Hung consumes alarming quantities of industrial alcohol and proceeds to flip, tumble, and puke his way to victory. Just as amusing is when Fei Hung conjures up names on the fly for the moves he performs, many of which are utterly ridiculous: Monkey drinking master’s wine, Drunk lady flirting, turtle holding wine barrel, etc. It is unabashedly over-the-top and the movie is all the better because of it.
Come to think of it, there is so much fighting in Lau Kar-leung’s picture that several scenes comes across as nothing more than excuses to pit Fei Hung against a new challenger so the audience can soak in Jackie Chan’s extraordinary abilities. One that comes to mind is an early scene when the protagonist goes to the market to purchase fish and meat, only to be accosted by the fishmonger Tsang, who later becomes one of the hero’s staunchest allies, seemingly at the proverbial flip of a switch. This decision to put so much emphasis on the battles does have its share of consequences, however, most notably that the movie feels as though its makers are unsure how to go about telling a proper story. As is so often the case with these modern Chinese adventure films, there is an underlying theme national patriotism at play, with Master Fu Wen-Chi pleading his case to prevent the British from hustling the country’s history to foreign shores. The ‘foreigner’ as the enemy is a commonality in such action pictures and while director Lau does plant the story’s seeds here and there throughout the film’s first half, it still feels as though there is a bit of a disconnect, like the various parts are somewhat discombobulated. For instance, Master Fu is seenin the opening and then not again for another 45 minutes, by which time Fei Hung has essentially found himself in a series of comical slipups only sporadically related to the overarching plot.
One of the most challenging aspects to analyze is the acting. As was the case with Black Mask (reviewed here) the only Blu-ray available in North America is the American dub. Unlike with the previous film where the voice acting was at times appalling, here, two decisions were made that make watching the American dub a worthy venture. For one, the type of English spoken by the characters is purposely of questionable quality, aiming for a direct parody of stereotypical broken English. Secondly, Jackie Chan dubs his own lines, replete his thickest of thick accents. In the present example, there are two ways to present an English-language dub to English-speaking audiences. One is to have a plain but certainly efficient dub in which all characters speak the language without a hitch. The other is to embrace the movie’s silliness, a tactic that admittedly gives in to stereotypes, make no mistake about it, but that ends up making the movie very funny in a cheap sort of way. Some of Anita Mui’s lines are among the funniest in the entire film. Ling, Fei Hung’s stepmother (which itself is bonkers given that she was 9 years younger than Chan, the latter whom was only 10 years younger that Ti Lung who plays his father!), a tough cookie, a take charge woman who loves a good fight and a good mahjong game, especially if she rakes it in at the expense of her friends. Anita Mui is a great physical actress and, regardless of the quality of her original performance, the dub makes her out to be the best thing in the movie, second only to Jackie Chan.
As an introduction to Jackie Chan’s oeuvre, newcomers should look no further than The Legend of Drunken Master. It’s often quite funny and features some outrageous fight stunts. Does it drop the ball with regard to plot and story? Yes, in some ways it does. That being said, Jackie Chan vehicles rarely exist to tell deep, complex thematically mature tales. However perfunctory its story is, Drunken Master is obligatory viewing for the martial arts fan.
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