The Legend of Drunken Master

Jackie Chan stars
Directed and co-choreographed by Lau Ka Leung

My Rating:

Kick-ass kung fu! Among the all-time best!

Bitable Bytes:
"Such a great kung-fu film!"
"Made with a through-and-through commitment to high action!"
"Chan never ceases to amaze with the extent to which he'll go for a thrilling stunt!"
"In all, the action cannot be beat!"

What to do while watching:
Exclaim out loud.

What to eat while watching:
To really make it a party, match Chan drink for drink. It's about eight or nine and you should only feel obligated to take a sip for each of his gulps, and a gulp for each of his guzzles.

What makes this such a great kung-fu film? Everything. You can see that it's made with a through-and-through commitment to turning out gripping, high-action stunts. It also excels for immediacy of experience: I've said it before, and I'll say it again: a good kung-fu movie shows good kung-fu moves. It doesn't rely and quick cuts, dark lighting, cable flying, and special effects. And in Fei-Hung's (Jackie Chan's) own words, "No guns!"

Now it's true that I did love Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a film that relies heavily on cable flying (actors flown on wires in order to execute impossible maneuvers) and computer animation. That's because the stunts in Ang Lee's film move it to the realm of fairy tale: Far beyond a simple fighting movie, it is much more a romance.

Movies like Black Mask and Romeo Must Die on the other hand place a martial artist in a presumably realistic story, but have him or her execute enhanced-beyond-belief body physics. This muddies the experience for me: I mean is it martial art or film art or both? Let it make up its mind and be clear about it!

Now Jet Li has impressed me with his Fist of Legend and others in which he is sparse with his Hollywoodistic stunts. But Jackie Chan never ceases to amaze me with the dynamism of his physicality and the extent to which he'll go for a thrilling stunt that -- really -- any human crazy enough could do.

Now you may be saying, "Easy there, pard. Take it down a notch." But if you just watched Legend of Drunken Master, you'd be excited too.

A short list of the "Pow, baby!" stunts you'll see in this perfect little masterpiece:

  • A pole-axe battle fought underneath a locomotive.
  • Chan's first drunk in which he beats up five henchmen.
  • Chan's film mom and dad doing a slapstick-fu routine. (His mom is really funny!)
  • Chan and ally taking on a gang of ax-toting assassins and destroying a pub in the process.
  • The climactic fight scene in a steel mill in which Chan gets lit on fire a few times.
  • Chan fighting a sort of iron-chain-wielding Indiana Jones.
  • Chan getting kicked onto, then crawling across -- FIRE! DAMN!
  • Main bad guy wielding his crazy supersonic-knee-fu.
  • Main bad guy standing in the vertical splits, I mean one leg on the ground, the other at 180 degrees in the air, as he calmly removes his glasses.
  • Chan spitting fire, by now almost anti-climactic, but still funny.
  • Chan going crazy-ape drunken berserk. Boy, howdy!

In all, the action cannot be beat.

Which doesn't even touch on the story, which has considerable humor and even pathos. The humor, usually a second trump-suit for Chan, is carried here by his film mom, a very funny actress, and a few other bit roles. Chan swings his own slapstick to the subtle side with considerable success.

The pathos is much stronger than usual. Though as melodramatic as in many of his films, something about the comic build-up makes the father-disowning-son scene quite gut wrenching. Perhaps, in fact, it's too brutal to be fully melodramatic. There's something masterful about the scene, how it switches back and forth so violently from bitterness to humor.

I've raved so long, I've little time to summarize the tale: Chan recreates the role of Huang Fei-Hung, a popular hero in Hong Kong cinema. Fei-Hung is a mischievous lad who gets into scrapes and must get himself out again. The last Drunken Master, filmed nearly 20 years ago, showed how Fei-Hung was placed by his angry father under the tutelage of the drunken-boxing master Siu Ha-Chi. At the end of the film, Fei-Hung is the skilled fighter who returns just in time to save his father from a mercenary killer.

In this film, Fei-Hung is again with his father, but forbidden to practice drunken boxing, for without temperance, such practitioners often fall into alcoholism and ruin. But trouble is brewing in his town: crooked diplomats are using their power to smuggle China's precious artifacts from the country. They are simultaneously abusing the steel-mill workers in the town and conspiring to take away the Huang family land.

Fei-Hung is forced to fight again, and yes, to fight drunk. This indirectly brings disgrace upon his father, and he is, oh, yet again, disowned. But Fei-Hung continues to try to stop the smugglers and to help his friends, hurt by the steel-mill battles. His fight, not his victory, is enough to reconcile him with his father-a touching modification to the prior story.

At the end, Fei-Hung mobilizes the town to defeat the evils and at last comes alone to the final showdown obstacle course. First he defeats for top henchmen-without actually injuring them. Then he has to beat the Indiana Jones guy with the big iron chain. Then he has to beat the Asian Keanu Reaves. And finally, after all that and the injuries heaped upon him through it, he faces the number one bad-guy, the smarmy, yuppified baddie that's just so easy to despise.

The fight takes some time. Mr. Evil has got this lightning-speed knee action, reminiscent of the "Shadowless Fist" style that the assassin used in the first movie. This would be the "Shadowless Foot." Chan gets to crawl through fire and get nearly defeated before he drinks pure alcohol, on hand to stoke the fires of the steel mill. After breathing fire, puking, and turning red as a serano pepper, he...well, you just have to see it.

Chan has the drunken-boxing form down cold, on the rocks. He does pulls some cable-type tricks, allowing him to lean further off balance than physically possible, but these are subtle and combine with skewed camera angles to give a really good sense of drunkenness.

It's interesting to note that this movie was made in the mid 90's, just before Chan's following in the U.S. really started to boom. It was made in Hong Kong and marked a transitional period for Chan. He had made a string of high-action films like Twin Dragons and Police Story. His physical prowess was at its peak, combining great strength with honed finesse. And he and his co-workers were still willing to take great risks with their bodies in the name of entertainment. It's astonishing how many extras get thrown from second story balconies onto other people. You can see how painful some of this must be: it's like the wrestlers of the Extreme Wrestling Federation. It's like, "no pain, no show-biz."

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For your DVD collection: Legend of Drunken Master (DVD).

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