The Legend of Drunken Master aka Drunken Master 2 (2000) dir. Chia-Liang Liu
Starring: Jackie Chan, Anita Mui, Long Ti, Andy Lau
by Alan Bacchus
Even before the American release of this film, HK action buffs already knew it as Drunken Master 2, a legendary film certainly in my household for its astonishing fight sequences featuring Jackie Chan at his most lethal, most athletic, toughest and funniest. Remember, these were the days before the internet, and thus accessibility to foreign films not released stateside was limited. But for me access to Drunken Master 2 came from my membership at my local strip mall LaserDisc-renting Chinese videostore in Mississauga.
After the release of Rumble in the Bronx in North America in 1995, Jackie Chan finally had success overseas 15 years after he made his American debut in the early '80s. Other than the retched Rush Hour movies, Chan’s subsequent releases were older HK films re-dubbed and sometimes re-edited for North America. 1992’s Police Story 3 became Supercop in 1996, Police Story 4 became First Strike, and it was the same with Operation Condor, Twin Dragons and Mr. Nice Guy, each with decreasing box office returns and general public hype.
And so in 2000 when The Legend of Drunken Master was released, it was just another Jackie Chan movie to most people. But to the LaserDisc-watching freaks like me it was something special. However, what a shame that a meager $11 million box office take meant that arguably the film with the greatest ever hand-to-hand fight sequences was only glanced over.
What are the best kung-fu movies ever made? Maybe those Jet Li/Tsui Hark Once Upon a Time in China flicks? Or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon? Or the Yhang Zimou mystical epics? Enter the Dragon? The old school Five Deadly Venoms? Drunken Master 2 is a marvel because its kung fu is boiled down to hand-to-hand combat, achieving a fresh 'purity' in action largely unaided by elaborate weaponry, pyrotechnics, highflying wire techniques and, most definitely, computer graphics - just the beautiful and astonishing choreography of hands and feet flying.
It’s the turn of the century in China. Jackie Chan and his family have just bought a rare and potent root of ginseng from a neighbouring province and are crossing the border to get back home. Chan, aged 40 at the time, plays the ‘teenaged’ Fei-hung and son to his disapproving father, Kei-ying (Long Ti), who runs a martial arts school and garden/nursery. Fei-hung the troublemaker decides to hide the ginseng in a fellow passenger’s suitcase to avoid the customs charges. Of course, there’s a mix-up and Fei-hung winds up with some other kind of valuable artifact coveted by a nefarious group of imperialist thieves.
When the baddies come looking for the artifact, Fei-hung is forced to defend himself, protect his mother, get back his ginseng and do it all without pissing off his father. Fei-hung’s technique is ‘drunken boxing’ – his own personal style which mimics the wobbling and swaying of a drunken person, thus putting his opponent off guard. But when he actually gets drunk, like Popeye, Fei-hung gets stronger, quicker and more badass.
As usual, it’s disposable plotting for Jackie Chan, but the old world China setting is made more bearable than say the 'New York' locale of Rumble in the Bronx or the international espionage of First Strike. Again, Chan’s vaudevillian/silent cinema comic timing is ramped up, creating a fast-paced, zany comedy or errors. The family core of Fei-hung, his father and his step-mother forms a fun three-way comic dynamic. Anita Mui is the stand-out as the stepmother (actually 9 years Chan’s junior!). She appears to be acting in a film all her own, as her heightened and exaggerated mannerisms go beyond even Chan’s tone of silent-era influenced anachronism.
But it’s the awe-inspiring fight sequences that made Drunken Master 2 the best kept secret among us suburban LaserDisc genre-junkies. If not the greatest fight sequence ever put to film, then at least my personal favourite is the incredible tea-house scene in the middle of the picture. Fei-hung and his buddy sit down on the upper floor of a tea house for a peaceful drink when out of nowhere a hundred axe-wielding thugs storm the building and attack them. The duo proceed to beat down these badasses and tear apart the entire building with bamboo poles and brute strength. It’s over-the-top and implausible, 2 vs. 100, but the choreography is so precise we actually believe two people could do such damage and fend off a hundred guys. The Wachowski Bros. would later film their own version in Matrix Reloaded with their Neo vs. 100 Smiths fight but with the aid of mondo computer effects.
This is just one of a half-dozen equally inspired and monumentally artistic and brutal hand-to-hand fight sequences and the reason my LaserDisc player in the 1990s got a good workout replaying it over and over again.
The Legend of Drunken Master is available on Blu-ray from Miramax/Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment, in addition to three other martial arts classics – Hero, Iron Monkey and Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman.