Thursday, March 7, 2013

Mark Ahn Knows Kung fu The Legend of Drunken Master

by Mark Ahn
Jackie Chan is an international treasure.

There is no performer in the history of movies that combines slapstick, kinetic action, and charisma; partly because when would it have ever made sense for a martial artist to look to Buster Keaton as a source of inspiration? Whether he is successful or not in his Keaton imitation is a topic for another day (I think he’s great, by the way), but, if nothing else, Chan must be credited for originality in thinking. Who would think to make martial arts something... funny? But here we are.

Chan made The Legend of Drunken Master (released in 1994 under the title Drunken Master II) as a non-related follow-up to 1978's Drunken Master. The most important through-line for both films is the introduction of "drunken boxing" into movies: a series of feints, leans, and unorthodox punches and kicks which imitate the motions of a drunkard, thus earning the name. In addition to the swaying, unpredictable movements, the drunken boxer also becomes more powerful when actually drunk, since inebriation only makes the drunken boxer more powerful in his swings and less susceptible to pain. Which is what I've ALWAYS said. Think the Hulk, or probably closer, Popeye and his spinach.

In addition to being a super-cool looking style of martial arts, drunken boxing also ends up being the perfect vehicle for Chan's brand of physical humor. Nobody sells a reaction or dodges perilous danger better than Chan; he’d be perfect for the pantomime of American professional wrestling, if it went about 10,000 times faster. Everybody has heard of the death-courting physical stunts that Chan and his team regularly choreograph, but it’s not just the big show pieces, but the small touches that make his performances so fun to watch. Early in the movie, Chan’s character (Wong Fei Hung) has to defend his mother (played by Anita Mui, in the only comedy aside from Chan’s that works in the movie) from a band of thugs. He’s having difficulty defeating them, so his mother decides to toss him bottles of alcohol for him to drink during the fight, and the way he maneuvers himself to dodge his opponents’ strikes while still taking swigs from the alcohol is just as entertaining; it’s like watching two movies at once, because you have the bewildered bad guys trying their best to hit him, and then there is Chan, just. Trying to. Get a grip. On that damn. Bottle!
The physical comedy works great because it adds another dimension to the action that isn’t necessarily fighting-based. It’s not an injury during a fight that the protagonist has to overcome, but some side “business” that ups the stakes of the action. And this may be strange to say, but it makes the martial arts seem less “martial-artsy.” There is less of that pose-holding, you-killed-my-master stare-down that you often see in other films. I don’t point that out to criticize the poses or the stares but to say that the absence of those is indicative of Chan’s desire to try new and different things. Chan’s action (in this movie, but in most of his films) tend to be about the choreography of the actors and their adaptation to their environment; you don’t see a lot of blood flying or bruises forming, because it’s not about the physical beating of the opponent. You do see a lot of found items becoming weapons and guys breaking through furniture and glass emphasizing the hyperactivity of the action, which is beautifully illustrated in the Axe Gang fight in the middle of the movie, where Chan and a compatriot have to escape from 100 guys with axes from inside a restaurant. It’s not about beating every one of the bad guys; just getting out is good enough.

Which isn’t to say that Chan is light on the martial arts; he is awesome at it. The final showdown takes place in a steel factory (which bears too similar a resemblance to JB’s observation of the ubiquitous Factory that Produces Sparks in movies), where Wong Fei Hung confronts a villainous faction who plan to sell ancient Chinese historical artifacts. Chan, as Wong Fei Hung, is dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, while the henchmen he battles are very conspicuously dressed in Western suits and ties to delineate the natives from the foreigners.

The ultimate villain in this movie is John, played by Ken Lo, who in real life was Jackie Chan’s bodyguard. However, when I first watched Legend of Drunken Master in college, my buddies and I didn’t know that; we just called the bad guy Buttman. We called him that based on the reasoning that his butt muscles must have been developed to superhuman levels to deliver the volume of kicks in this final fight (“I bet he can go to the bathroom really quickly” was a side observation that met with lots of approving nods). Watch a clip of this fight; at least 90% of the time, Ken Lo is on one leg, coming at Jackie Chan with a blinding flurry of sidekicks. Unlike lots of traditional martials arts films, the tempo of this fight is blisteringly fast, and to my (untrained) eye, it doesn’t look like the film has been sped up much, there is no wirework for the jumps, and there is little “power powder”; Chan took over the directing for the final fight sequence, and he places the camera to best effect to anticipate the movement. It’s a terrific example of what makes Chan so good; it’s unorthodox, funny, quick, full of practical effects, and crafted by someone with an eye for entertaining an audience. He loves to entertain, and he works hard to do so; when he crawls through a bed of live embers during this fight, he did three takes to make sure he got what he wanted. Not bad for someone who was 40 when he made the movie.
As for available copies of the movie, there is no version that combines the original aspect ratio, the original cut, and Cantonese language track all into one, which seems sort of preposterous in this day and age of Blu-ray goodies. I watched it on the Blu-ray released in 2009 by Miramax, which is unfortunately dubbed in English, and whose audio soundtrack doesn’t always match up with the punches on screen, and could potentially be very distracting. I love Jackie Chan as much as anybody, but I don’t need to listen to him speak English, especially in a Chinese movie. Somebody please dig up that Cantonese track!

The Legend of Drunken Master will stand as one of the most unique creations in martial arts movie history, a perfect example of the combination of qualities that makes him a singular performer. I’m hopeful that some new action star, like Dwayne Johnson or Stephen Chow (although neither of them will stack up to Chan’s kung fu prowess) will take up the action + sense of humor mantle that has been Jackie Chan’s for decades.


  1. My Jackie Chan favs growing up were Young Master and Project A Part 2. Both were so great. Young master with its near 15 minute fight scene climax where bong water gives Jackie super strength, and project a 2 with the hand cuffed fight scene. The martial arts and the Buster Keaton. Wonderful.

    1. Hi Brad-

      I haven't seen those yet, unfortunately; I feel under-educated when it comes to Jackie Chan's filmography. Dude has made a ton of films. I know it's played for laughs, but there is something slightly troubling when it comes to a foreign substance (alcohol, bong water, anger, etc.) pushing a character into superhuman levels, especially when that foreign substance is something negative.

  2. Jackie Chan really is great - aside from being super/multi-talented and all of the other great qualities you mention, he also just seems like a genuinely sweet guy. It would sidekick my heart to find out he's an asshole in real life. Here's a question I could probably Google but for the sake of human interaction, do you know of a movie where he's played the villain? And NOT a loveable villain like say, Dr. Evil or the skin-wearing serial killer from Silence of the Lambs. It's hard to imagine he could pull it off.

    I've never seen Legend of the Drunken Master but I'll seek it out - you've given me a hankering for some Chan and based on your write-up this sounds like just what the doctor* ordered.

    *Probably not a real doctor.

    1. I'm not a doctor, but I play one when I play "Operation."

      From all reports, Chan is a genuine, "normal" person. The most controversial things I've heard about him are some critical comments about Chinese politics. I'd agree with him not able to pull of a loveable villain, mostly because of range, but also because he's very sensitive to having a lot of kids as his fans.

      Apparently Chan has played a villainous sort in "Robin-B-Hood" where he's a roguish gambler type, but the description of the movie indicates that it's more of a comedy. In "New Police Story," he plays a much more interesting character as the good guy who's turned into a cynical alcoholic. I personally really like the "Police Story" movies, so take that for what it's worth ($500 Monopoly money). If you need a place to start, I'd go with "Police Story 3" more popularly known as "Supercop."

  3. I talked in a previous post of my love for Legend of Drunken Master so I wont go into detail on that (I concur with Mr Ahn it's awesome) but one thing I wanted to say about Jackie he is one of a very small list of action stars that I will go and see his films, find out the plot is neither nonexistent or just really freaking weird and still say the movie was awesome.

    I was actually introduced to Jackie with Rumble in the Bronx, his first big US hit (at least thats how I remember it.) Then thats what lead to my Dad taking me to Chan films that were getting released every couple of months after Jackie hit it big for a bit. He was not a fan and I dragged him to half a dozen Chan films back in the day. He called him Connie Chung, because my dad's racist! Oh well at least my family had one thing we could all watch, HBO'S Six Feet Under.

    1. "Rumble in the Bronx" has one of my pet tropes from foreign-ish films, which is the characterization of American urban gangs being people who ride motorcycles, laugh jeeringly at everything, and wear leather jackets. ALL OF WHICH ARE TRUE in the 1970s.