The Legend Of Drunken Master

Made in Hong Kong in 1994, martial artist Jackie Chan’s The Legend Of Drunken Master, now dubbed and retitled in English, came out just before his North American breakthrough — Rumble In The Bronx (a more international production) — as sequel to 1978’s Jui Kuen, a.k.a. Drunken Master 1.

The Legend Of Drunken Master is a chop-chop-choppy treat, whose lack of Matrix-derived, CGI pulley-and-wire effects is a bit of a relief. When it comes to hand-to-hand, feet-to-feet blows, genre fans should find Chan’s (then aged-40) komic, kung-fu khoreography in peak form; and the curious non-initiate is advised to stop holding out and get a ticket at once!

After watching him roll, literally, on hot coals for what seems like an eon, one surmises — from this sequence in particular — that Chan’s exuberant, underdog charm will endure long after his daring, myriad acrobatics take their bodily toll (if they don’t kill him first).

In richly photographed pre-WWI China, Chan is folk hero Wong Fei Hung, who with family and village folk battles imperialist Brits, and stops turncoat Chinese henchmen from smuggling national artifacts.

But, lest we forget, this is still a Jackie Chan movie; one that is its own indelible formula, for without the formula the film would cease to exist. Where the only genuine, therefore yoked-to-the-fore thrill on the bill is the zany action, and the silly ‘plot’ functions merely to string each remarkable stunt piece together.

Wong mostly “drunken boxes,” a supposedly deadly technique where the imbued fighter staggers and bobs through a looser, much increased dexterity and overall strength, not to mention a higher pain threshold. It is meant to catch one’s opponent off-guard and off-balance…but only if one consumes just the right amount of alcohol.

In movies, Chan’s adversaries almost always outnumber him. Thus it becomes a perpetually fresh fulfillment to us, not a surprise, when Wong invents defensive gear out of found, everyday items. Fans, benches, bamboo shoots, tables, and pipes all figure prominently, and hilariously, in Drunken Master 2.

He also goes beneath a train for a dizzy-dodge classic with 60-year-old director Lau Kar Leung, himself a veteran of martial arts cinema. (The fact that Chan fired and succeeded Leung after directorial disagreements probably accounts for the film’s woozily uneven tone.) And the twenty-minute fight between Wong and the smuggler, Lo Huai Kang (Chan’s real-life bodyguard), is one of the great duel showdowns: terrifically intense yet fluid and graceful at the same time.

Some might say Anita Mui steals the show as Wong’s funny, gambling-addicted stepmom, and she certainly draws the biggest laughs — like whenever she’s faking frailty in front of his stern, herbalist father (Ti Lung).

Though its sheer physicality grows wearying and the ending feels too abrupt and truncated, The Legend Of Drunken Master is pure Jackie Chan mastery.

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