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IN SHORT: A Glorious kung fu flick. [Rated R for violent content. 102 minutes]
We've said it before so we'll keep it short this time: before Rumble in the Bronx brought Jackie Chan to the attention of mainstream American audiences, he was a major star in Asia and around the world among fans of kung fu flicks. Most of these Hong Kong made movies were done fast and cheap. The characters are broadly painted and the stories just thick enough to get from one intricately choreographed fight scene to another. Chan's breakthrough was to make his character funny. Visual gags don't need subtitles or dubbing, and thus a legend was made.
We've sat through a number of dubbed Chan movies, and they were all enjoyable enough, but nothing has come close to knocking our socks off. We sat down for The Legend of Drunken Master. We went home sock-less. 'nuff said.
The Legend of Drunken Master was released internationally as Drunken Master 2 in 1994, a sequel to a film Chan made in 1979, and unrelated to DM3 and 4, which followed sans Chan. The series is based on legends of the life of kung fu master Wong Fei-Hung, who died in 1924. That life has inspired close to 200 other movies and a star turn, at one time, for Jet Li.
The American release gets off to a rocky start -- the classic and oft joked about too few words in the English script to match the mouth movements -- but the first battle sequence comes quickly enough. Wong Fei-Hung (Chan) faces off against Mandarin patriot Fu Man-Lei (director Lau Ka Leung), the former with a sword and the latter with a spear, in the confined spaces underneath a stopped train. Each has stolen packages from the baggage of the English Ambassador (Louis C. Roth) and each escapes with the wrong stuff.
Wong practices a kung fu style that his father (Ti Lung) refuses to teach, called "drunken boxing". Essentially, you act like you're drunk while you whip the tar out of any practitioner of a more "refined" style. Problem is, practitioners who drink first tend to get more powerful and soon find themselves alcoholic, which is the borderline case with Chan's character. It is damned unpleasant to watch. Thankfully, it takes only a small bit of screen time, and comes back as a gag in the film's finale.
You should know that I lost a very close friend to a drunk, so I carry a bit of baggage about that. It posed very little problem here.
The Ambassador has his own gang of thugs, all intent on recovering the package that has fallen into Wong's hands -- said package containing valuable Chinese cultural artifacts. And thus the fight scenes: Wong against a gang of four; Wong and Fu against an army of a hundred hatchet wielding thugs -- Chan is armed with a bamboo pole. There is no way to describe how phenomenal this battle is. It is topped by a spectacular twenty minute long slugfest against the Ambassador's top men (Low Houi Kang and Ken Lo) to finish the flick. These two fights alone are worth the ticket price. Lo is Chan's personal bodyguard and a champion kickboxer in his own right. His climactic battle with Chan is an amazing piece of work that took four months to film. So much for "quickie" Hong Kong production values.
The big difference between The Legend of Drunken Master and the other dubbed Chan movies we've seen is that here Chan concentrates on the fighting, more than the comedy. That he leaves to Anita Mui who, as Wong's stepmother, is a lying, manipulative caricature that is such a cartoon that it's incredibly funny.
As Chan has aged, he's put his emphasis on comedy, and so most Americans know things like Rush Hour. The 1994 Chan seen here is a thunderbolt. He moves faster than the eye can see. His character takes his lumps -- Drunken Master struck us as far more violent, certainly more bloody than the other dubbed flicks -- and, as is confirmed in the outtakes reel at the end of every Chan movie, there is no stuntman stepping in. Chan does visually spectacular and incredibly dangerous stunts. Some of 'em even had these old bones going "oo" with the rest of the crowd.
On average, a first run movie ticket will run you Eight Bucks. Were Cranky able to set his own price to The Legend of Drunken Master, he would have paid . . .
Most of the Chan movies tend to rank around the $5 dateflick level. The Legend of Drunken Master is definitely for testosterone charged teenboys, and those of us who remember what it was like to be one. It is, without a doubt, the best "pure Chan" movie we've ever seen.
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