Dir. by Chia-Liang Liu - 1 hr. 39 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
There's a really, really good chance that most movie-goers know Jackie Chan for his creative stunt work in a string of limp American-produced buddy films, where he is paired with an unlikely companion like Chris Tucker or Owen Wilson. Those films aren't uniformly terrible (or without their charms), but it would kind of be like only being familiar with Michael Jordan from the years he played for the Washington Wizards, or for his work as a baseball player. And then, when you hear older people talking with reverence about Jordan, you're unimpressed and keep thinking about how LeBron James would crush Jordan, given half a chance. I'm not going to pretend I've seen everything that Jackie Chan has ever done, but I have watched most of his American films, and I've watched "The Legend of Drunken Master," and that's enough to know that if you even kind of like "Rush Hour" or "Shanghai Knights" or "The Medallion," you have got a treat in store for you in "Drunken Master."
The film's story isn't that important; there are essentially only jaw-dropping fight scenes (which exist in abundance, open to finish) centered around Wong Fei-hung (Chan), and then funny scenes which set up the fights scenes (and usually involve Wong's story-line step-mother, played by the gifted Anita Mui). But just to humor you, the story involves Wong trying to evade paying taxes on some ginseng, and then stumbling upon a British plot to sell off Chinese antiquities. And so, so much kung-fu.
It might seem like a shaky foundation to build an entire film around one man and his absurd athletic and creative talents, but people used to pay good money just to watch Fred Estaire and Ginger Rogers dance. A good action film is not entirely dissimilar to a dance movie; you need someone who has a physical magnetism, grace and athleticism, good choreography, and maybe even an exotic locale to dazzle with. And it might seem unfair to other scenes to pick out two as being exemplary, but the early close-quarters spear-fight scene beneath a train and the entire closing sequence at the factory are unlike anything I've seen before or after; they play out at an unbelievable pace, Chan makes full use of his surroundings, and you might be surprised that his kung-fu is no joke (even if the Drunken Boxing style is comedic). And, as you might already know about Chan, he does everything himself. I'm not sure that there's much I could add to these scenes with words; if you watch this movie, you'll see what all the fuss is about. And you'll probably wish there was more stuff like this than like his early-aughts output.
So when Chan is able to string together a twenty-minute fight sequence to close this film, you'll understand that the action-foundation is very solid. Although his later films relied more on his (and his co-star's) charm and humor to carry the stories, this is the best of both worlds. Chan's humor and charm is on display, and he uses his physical gifts to create a new "style" of kung-fu: Drunken Boxing. He staggers and lurches and makes faces, and it's an effective fighting system, but he's unstoppable when he's not faking it. It's more impressive because it's sloppy and yet contained, but also because it's a kung-fu movie that doesn't sacrifice either humor or action in execution.
The only problem that I have is that Jackie Chan has made about three hundred and seventy-four films where British people looting antiquities are the baddies. I get it, Chan's not an Anglophile, but Mel Gibson only had to make one film where Jewish people are the villains ("The Passion of the Christ") to get labelled as anti-Semitic. Now imagine how bad Gibson's reputation would have been if stopping Christ's crucifixion was the central plot point of each of Gibson's three films a year for twenty years. At some point, someone would have taken him aside and gently suggested that he maybe find a new antagonist just for kicks. But most of Chan's films centered on the evil Brits would come later, and this doesn't affect how stunning of a film "The Legend of Drunken Master" is, in terms of hand-to-hand combat and being able to express a very distinct character through movement. These things do not diminish with time; watching "Drunken Master" shows Chan at the absolute top of his game, and makes everyone else who can't do their own stunt-work look lazy and unskilled in comparison. That's how good Chan is here.
3.5 / 5 - TV