Drunken Masterpiece

By any other name, soundtrack or edit, The Legend of Drunken Master is still an action classic

The first thing to know about The Legend of Drunken Master is that there is no Legend of Drunken Master, not really. Miramax/Dimension's new Jackie Chan release is a repackaging of the star's 1994 Drunken Master II.

This is not inherently a bad thing. Nearly all Jackie Chan buffs -- count this writer among them -- consider Drunken Master II to be one of his true masterpieces, certainly his best film from the '90s (though I think that Supercop gives it a run for its money, in part because of the presence of Michelle Yeoh). A six-year-old masterpiece, never before widely seen in the U.S., is still a masterpiece. Note that I say "widely seen": The film did, in fact, play in its original Cantonese version (with English and Chinese subtitles) in Chinese neighborhood theaters in the U.S.; the same version later showed up in brief American art house bookings, sometimes as part of Hong Kong film festivals. For the current release, Miramax has cut, dubbed and rescored the movie; more about that below.

Drunken Master II was a crucial film in Chan's career, for a number of reasons. For a start, it was the long-awaited sequel to the star's first really huge hit. In 1978, after years of being miscast as a Bruce Lee clone, Chan and first-time director Yuen Wo-Ping -- now known internationally as the action director on The Matrix and Ang Lee's upcoming Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon -- more or less invented the genre of kung fu comedy in Snake in Eagle's Shadow, which was a hit; they followed it up with Drunken Master, which made Chan a major star throughout much of the world.

Chan delivered a very broad, goofy interpretation of Wong Fei Hung, the real-life Cantonese hero who was already a popular character in Chinese cinema. (Jet Li later became a star with his very different take on Wong in Tsui Hark's seminal Once Upon a Time in China series.) For the next few years, these two films were the template for Chan's work -- classic period kung fu comedies with hilarious, elaborate fight sequences.

In 1983, growing confident as a filmmaker, Chan started to expand his scope with the Project A movies, about a turn-of-the-century cop; the contemporary Police Story series; and a variety of other nonperiod roles. In fact, he seemed to have abandoned his original format altogether. This was the source of some unhappiness for Chan fans, who came to his work more as martial arts buffs than as film buffs and who missed the actor's riffs on classic fighting techniques. After years of talking about a return, Chan finally delighted this faction with Drunken Master II.

It may be that Chan made his decision in part because of Li's highly successful revival of the Wong Fei Hung character or because the Once Upon a Time in China series revived the popularity of period martial arts sagas among Chinese audiences. But there's another likely reason: While Chan's insistence on realism in his most death-defying stunts suggests a man in deep denial about the reality of his own mortality, he may have realized that he was running out of time for certain kinds of action. To prepare for the film, which was released around the time of his 40th birthday, he reportedly subjected himself to his most grueling training since his childhood agonies in the Chinese Opera Research School. It's hard to imagine Chan, now 46, ever doing anything like these amazing fight sequences again. Drunken Master II may well stand as his final word on true martial arts cinema.

At the film's beginning, the allegedly teenaged Fei Hung is returning home from an out-of-town shopping excursion with his father, herbalist Wong Kei Ying (Ti Lung, a popular '70s martial arts star, best known in America as the star of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow). On the train, he tries to stop a thief (Lau Ka Leung, who is also the credited director); after an amazing five-minute fight -- which neither of them wins -- Fei Hung discovers that he and his adversary have accidentally switched parcels and that he is now in possession of a priceless cultural treasure.

Several fights and some comic high jinks later, we reach the final brawl -- a fight with the main bad guy (wonderfully played by Chan's real-life bodyguard Ken Lo) in which, among other horrors, Chan, on his back, must scramble across a bed of actual burning coals. It is one of the most amazing such sequences ever made.

It's easy to recommend Drunken Master II, but it's unclear at this point how much the American distributor may have damaged it. While The Legend of Drunken Master isn't being screened in time to make specific judgments, we know the following: Jackie did his own dubbing (yea!); in the trailer, the other dubbed voices sound inane (boo!). Miramax's film is 87 minutes, roughly 15 minutes shorter than the original (boo!). Since Drunken Master II's main raison d'être is its action scenes, the loss of some of the exposition doesn't strike me as that much of a travesty, despite my loathing of the practice on general principle.

 
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