Movie-A-Day: Legend of the Drunken Master (1994)

That movie with some guy named Jackie Chan

Cast: Jackie Chan as Fei Hung, and other people who I assume are famous in China

Premise: When a doctor’s son bumbles into an international crime conspiracy, he uses his controversial martial arts style to save the day.

As with most Americans, my image of Jackie Chan was shaped by films like Rush Hour and Shanghai Noon. He’s the goofy Asian guy who we’re surprised to learn is a badass. But unlike in our dumb movies, in China he’s…the goofy Asian guy who we’re surprised to learn is a badass. That’s kind of his thing. The primary difference is that Chan’s chinese efforts allowed him almost total control over production. He was responsible for his stunts, choreography, and even editing. This allowed for his works to be a lot more distinct than his big budget Hollywood schlock. One example of those works is today’s film.

As someone whose never seen a Chinese Jackie Chan film, the first that struck me was how cartoonish he can be. In most American films, the humor is derived from how out of place he is in America (with one of the few exceptions being the god-awful The Tuxedo). In Drunken Master, it’s just because he’s a goofy son of a bitch. Since the premise of the film requires him to be drunk, it perfectly showcases Chan’s cheeky humor. Chan’s character Fei-hung is a gifted martial artist who becomes increasingly wacky-yet-deadly the more sloshed he gets. This leads to techniques such as “down the hatch” where he dodges attacks by chugging.

The cartoony nature of the film isn’t limited to Chan either. Probably the biggest star in the film besides him is the late Anita Mui who plays Chan’s stepmother, despite being 5 years YOUNGER than he is (eww).

This actress is one of the best physical comedians i’ve ever seen; particularly her facial expressions. Like Chan, she’s also pretty adept at combining comedy and kung fu. The cast of Drunken Master is pretty funny in general. For instance, the primary bad guys are all businessmen who are inexplicably good at kung fu, leading to scenes such as a new steel mill foreman keeping his workers in line by picking up a FLAMING STEEL BAR and fighting off his entire crew with it.

Despite the emphasis on drunken kung fu, most of the action is pretty straightforward. Chan’s drunken style is more like a “super mode” and most of the scenes have him using more conventional martial arts. Not to say this is boring; many of Chan’s signatures are present such as improvised weapons; one famous scene has him fighting off a gang of axe-wielders with a frayed bamboo shoot. In addition, every character has a unique and appropriate fighting style; the tall and lean bad guy has an aggressive kick-centric style to utilize his range, whereas Chan’s father has a very rigid style reflecting his stern demeanor. Touches like this are great because this film doesn’t have much in the way of true “acting”, so characterization comes from how these people fight (which thankfully everyone does).

If I had to say anything “bad” about the film, it’s that the film has one…uncomfortable…scene. After Chan’s first use of drunken  boxing, his dad beats him with a stick and then, for being complicit with his fighting, threatens to beat his mother too (which he only relents on doing because she’s pregnant and that of course makes it wrong). I imagine this might be a bit of values dissonance, though I don’t know much about what was considered appropriate in 90’s Chinese film.

Overall, this was a great movie. It’s hard to get across the quality of an action film in a text review, but trust me when I say this is one of the most distinct (and funny) martial arts films you’ll find on NetFlix.

If you want a more insightful critique of Chan’s skill as an action comic, check out Every Frame A Painting’s YouTube video on the topic.

My Rating: Two bottles up!

Stray Thoughts

  • Chan’s character creates several funny names for his moves (“maiden flirts with gentleman”, “corkscrew opens wine bottle”, etc). I assume this inspired Hak Foo from Jackie Chan Adventures.

  • The bad guy does a standing split in a suit. I can’t even find a job in one. Life is unfair.

 

 

 

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