|The Legend of Drunken
review by KJ Doughton, 20 October 2000
Iíll admit this up front.
Jackie Chanís The Legend of Drunken Master lacks the somber dignity of a Schindlerís
List, the emotional pull of Terms
of Endearment, and the resonance of Citizen
Kane. In other words, itís not likely to have Chan racing to
the podium to pick up any Oscars next March (although Iím sure
that the stunt godís theatrics would make Roberto Benigni look
absolutely catatonic by comparison, were the occasion ever to come
about). But this sensational showcase of martial arts genius
certainly deserves to win something.
After all, how many of the above criticsí favorites boasted any of
the following jaw-dropping kung fu moments: a.) two foes sparring
with spears beneath a train, twirling and jabbing their weapons in
the manner of manic baton-twirlers; b.) Chanís lovable hero Wong
Fei Hung fending off an army of axe-wielding assailants, trapping
their hands inside a tube of split bamboo as they zero in on him
like persistent mosquitoes; c.) Wongís durable backside skidding
over a vat of red-hot coals, like a kid diving onto a slip Ďn
slide in the summer heat; d.) Wong going "mano a mano"
with a furious-footed kick fighter (Ken Lo), whose lower extremities
twist, jerk, and thrust like Elvis after his fifteenth pot of
coffee. And I havenít even mentioned the fire-breathing scene.
Jackie Chanís recent film
releases have fallen into one of two categories: widely-publicized,
high visibility American releases like this yearís Touchstone
comedy Shanghai Noon, and
a back-catalogue of re-issued Hong Kong movies, such as 1997ís Operation
Condor (originally released as Armor
of God II during its 1990 Hong Kong premiere).
The U.S. productions have favored a tried Ďn true, urban
"buddy movie" formula: 1998ís Rush
Hour coupled Chan with motormouth comedian Chris Tucker, in what
might be described as Lethal Weapon Lite. Meanwhile,
the older movies, resurrected in the States by Dimension Films, have
superior action and stuntwork, but suffer from obvious dubbing and a
comparably low-budget feel. 1996ís
Rumble in the Bronx, for
instance, was shot in Canada, where the surrounding mountain vistas
put a serious damper on its attempts to recreate authentic, Big
Originally released in Hong Kong as
Drunken Master II in 1994, The
Legend of Drunken Master
is another vintage Chan flick thatís been culled from the
archives. However, this
gem leads head and shoulders above the rest, emerging as Chanís
piece de resistance. Chan
is currently pushing fifty, and his notoriously dangerous,
"Iíll do it myself" approach to stunt work has mellowed
some in recent years. The
Legend of Drunken Master
was the pinnacle of his physically comedic approach to Kung Fu, with
Chanís self-assured, graceful ballet of movement contrasting the
insanely hazardous perils he faced.
Unlike recent, unsatisfying actioners such as Mission: Impossible II, where the audience suffers through dreary,
expository passages waiting for the big action payoff, this
resurrected masterpiece is savvy enough to weave its many fight
scenes throughout the film. It
takes off like a gunshot, and builds up with the momentum of the
Millenium Falcon jumping to light speed.
The film opens as Chanís
well-meaning but trouble-finding hero Wong Fei Hung (based on an
actual kung fu legend from 1920ís-era China) boards a train,
intending to deliver a ginseng plant to his stern, herb salesman
father (Ti Lung). However,
when he accidentally misplaces the ginseng, exiting the train with a
valuable Chinese artifact, Wong unveils an English Ambassadorís
plan to smuggle priceless Chinese antiques out of the country.
Thereís a funny bit involving
Wongís attempts to pawn off the roots of a bonsai tree as the
missing ginseng herb, to one of his fatherís unsuspecting
Wong gets into a street skirmish with a bullying steel mill foreman,
in one of many prolonged, exhausting fights where Chan incorporates
a kung fu style known as "drunken boxing." According to
the rules of Drunken
Masterís eccentric universe, booze is to the kung fu master
what spinach is to Popeye. Itís not long before Wongís mother
(Anita Mui) is tossing him booze from the sidelines and watching him
pound the attacker into mincemeat with each consecutive sip of this
Such "drunken boxing"
bouts are among the most elaborately staged spectacles ever filmed.
Chan sways to and fro like a jack-in-the-box sprung from its
holding box, staggering like a wino but punching at the speed of a
punk drummer thrashing his trapset.
Meanwhile, his charming, clownish humor is also evident, as
he projects a crooked, soused grin: at one point, Wong even resorts
to chugging gasoline, before burping up a cluster of bubbles and
exhaling flames like Gene Simmons of Kiss.
Legend of Drunken Master culminates in Wongís linking of the
antique-smuggling operation to a steel factory. This latter setting
acts as the showcase for a truly eye-popping finale, as Chan fends
off pipe-wielding thugs, cauldrons of steaming coal, steel barrels
dropped from a rooftop, and every other combination of weapon,
assailant, and projectile within striking distance.
Raised in a culture of raucous
sitcoms and quick-cut MTV editing, Iím betting that U.S.
moviegoers will spend more of their dollars on the conventionally
funny, 48 Hrs.-type Chan
than on the earlier, more no-holds-barred counterpart that surfaces
in older, Hong Kong-based films such as this one.
However, if action fans can take a chance and wade through
the unfamiliar settings and awkward dubbing, theyíll find an
action film that transcends the best of the genre.
The Legend of Drunken
Master is the real deal.
Lau Ka Leung
Tong Man Ming
Yeun Chieh Chi