When "Shanghai Noon" was winning friends for Jackie Chan a few months back, one troublesome critic (no names, please) grumbled that it was bittersweet that these new fans couldn't get a chance to see the Asian action superstar in his prime. Now, with the arrival of "The Legend of Drunken Master," they can.
Originally released in 1994 as "Drunken Master 2," this is one of the films that made Jackie Chan Jackie Chan. No less an authority than Thomas Weisser, author of "Asian Trash Cinema," claims it contains "some of the most extensive, jaw-dropping stunt work and martial arts magic ever amassed together in one feature."
In addition to the new title, "Drunken Master" appears with a bright new print and has been serviceably dubbed into English. Chan does his own dubbing and participates in numerous exceptional action sequences that illustrate why he really ought to be considered the hardest-working man in show business.
"Drunken Master" is set in a photogenic re-creation of early 20th century China, but its plot is not something a whole lot of attention need be paid to. It starts when Wong Fei Hung (Chan), traveling with his renounced herbalist father, decides to hide a valuable ginseng plant in someone else's luggage to avoid paying duty.
That someone else turns out to a nefarious Western ambassador who's intent on selling carloads of China's cultural treasures to the British Museum. Not a good thing. "Today they plunder a seal," Wong is told, "the next thing you know the Great Wall will be gone."
Naturally, the box the ginseng is in looks just like a box containing one of those priceless jade seals, and when Wong takes the wrong box all kinds of people, both good and bad, come after him to get it back.
"Drunken Master's" other plot thread concerns, not surprisingly, the drunken school of kung fu boxing, apparently a real fighting style that uses inebriation to loosen the body and increase the pain threshold. Wong's father, fearful his son will become an alcoholic, wants him to just say no to drunken boxing, but it turns out to be a hard habit to break.
"Drunken Master" nicely showcases the two aspects of Chan's persona that combine to create his wide appeal. He is first of all one of the most limber of men, a model of acrobatic athleticism who twists, dodges and twirls his lithe body almost faster than our eyes can follow.
But while many action heroes, Asian and Western alike, come off like automatons, Chan, always ready to break into a wide grin, specializes in bright, unquenchable enthusiasm. Chan may have the sunniest disposition of any performer since Shirley Temple, more boyish in his own way than the somber (and much younger) Haley Joel Osment.
But just because he'd as soon smile as fight, that takes nothing away from the eye-widening nature of Chan's on-screen battles. "Drunken Master" features several memorable encounters, including a spear fight in a confined space and an attack by what seems like hundreds of ax-wielding hooligans. Best of all is a staggering finale in a steel mill that was filmed over four months and features a climactic struggle with the high-kicking bad guy played by Ken Lo, formerly Chan's personal bodyguard.
"Drunken Master" also has a great deal of the unapologetically broad and silly comedy that Chan greatly enjoys. There are also "I Love Lucy"-type moments involving Wong's mah-jongg addict of a stepmother (Anita Mui) and an unconvincing confrontation with that disapproving father.
All of this is simply the price that must be paid to experience the kind of thrilling, non-computer-generated stunt work that is becoming increasingly rare anywhere in the world. How dangerous this stuff can be is vividly illustrated in outtakes of action moments gone wrong, which, in Chan's signature gesture, are on view at the end. You don't see stunts like this every day, not even from Jackie Chan.
* MPAA rating: R, for violent content. Times guidelines: numerous battles, though most of the damage inflicted is not graphic.
'The Legend of Drunken Master'
Jackie Chan: Wong Fei Hung
Anita Mui: Wong's Mother
Ti Lung: Wong's Father
Lau Ka Leung: Master Fu
Andy Lau: Counterintelligence Officer
A Hong Kong Stuntman Assn. Ltd. production, released by Dimension Films. Director Lau Ka Leung. Producers Eric Tsang, Edward Tang, Barbie Tung. Executive producers Leonard Ho. Screenplay Edward Tang, Tong Man Wing, Yuen Chieh Chi. Cinematographers Cheung Yiu Cho, Cheung Tung Leung, Wong Man Wan, Jingle Ma. Editor Cheung Yiu Chung. Costumes Ching Tin Qui, Suki Yip. Music Michael Wandmacher. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
In general release.