The Legend of Drunken Master
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 Apple atmosphere.

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 customers.  Meanwhile, 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 alcoholic fuel. 

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.        

The 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.

Directed by:
Lau Ka Leung

Jackie Chan
Ti Lung
Anita Mui
Felix Wong

Written by:
Edward Tang
Tong Man Ming
Yeun Chieh Chi




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