The newest Jackie Chan film is actually 6 years old. Like many of Chan’s other “new” releases, The Legend of Drunken Master is a re-dub and re-release of an earlier film (if you’re looking for the video, it’s called Drunken Master II).
R for violence
Jackie plays Wong Fei-Hung, a youth whose father teaches kung fu at the family’s school. Based on a real person, Fei-Hung is a master of “drunken boxing,” a rare martial art form whose practitioners act drunk to give them an advantage in combat. Acting drunk, they say, gives you more flexibility and the element of surprise. In this film, the form seems to work even better if you actually are a little drunk — not too drunk, but just enough to make you bolder and take away some of the pain.
Fei-Hung is on a business trip for the family when there is a mix-up involving two lookalike packages. Fei-Hung gets in trouble with his parents over the lost box, but that’s nothing. The owners of the other package are a gang of violent criminals — Chinese opportunists and British Imperialists trying to plunder the cultural artifacts of China.
The plot is thin, but it’s all you need for a Jackie Chan movie.
Why Jackie Chan?
Chan is different from other martial arts stars in two very important ways. First of all, he actually does what it looks like he’s doing on screen.
The earliest filmmakers were split into two camps: the documentarians and the magicians. The magicians (like Georges Méliès) used editing, double exposures, and any trick they could think of to tell their story. The documentarians (like the Lumière brothers) preferred to leave their cameras running, merely recording the world as it is.
As a filmmaker and stuntman, Jackie Chan is more documentarian than magician. Instead of using editing, wires, or other tricks to convey his talent, he prefers to leave the camera rolling as it records his amazing feats and carefully choreographed fights. Like Buster Keaton, Chan has risked his life and broken his bones for the sake of his art.
The other important difference is Chan’s upbeat personality. Instead of a scowl and a grimace, he performs his fights with a smile and a wink. Other action stars mow down their enemies with extreme prejudice. Chan respects his opponents and is sometimes even beaten or outnumbered by them. Far from macho revenge fantasies, Chan’s movies are always good, clean fun.
The Legend of Drunken Master compares well to Chan’s other films. It has fewer stunts than many of his movies, but it has several very good fight scenes. The first fight takes place under a train, where Chan fights Master Fu (played by the director), sword vs. spear. In another scenery-chewing sequence, he and Fu take on about 30 axe-wielding gangsters.
In the big finale, Chan fights a smaller gang of more formidable opponents in a steel mill. At first glance, the mill looks like a Donkey Kong video game, complete with mine cars on tracks, glowing red-hot coals, and an inexplicably bobbing platform. The set looks a little ridiculous, but in a Jackie Chan film it suggests infinite possibilities.
By the way, the sequence (one of Chan’s personal favorites) lasts maybe 10 or 15 minutes on screen, but because of the elaborate choreography, it took four months to film.
Chan the Great
I realize I haven’t given a glowing recommendation to The Legend of Drunken Master, and objectively, it is probably not a great film. In fact, there are one or two scenes that beg to be trimmed.
Nevertheless, Chan is an entertainer who can singlehandedly make any film enjoyable to watch. Besides, you probably won’t be paying much attention to the plot anyway.
Chan’s grace and physical prowess put him in the cinematic pantheon that Buster Keaton founded. He will continue to entertain audiences long after he is gone, and now’s your chance to see him on the big screen. I suggest you go.