Here’s one for the kiddies—a fighting style that, in order to truly master, requires consumption of half a vat of sake. Perhaps the soccer hooligans are onto something.
“Drunken Master” is considered by most to be the film that brought Jackie Chan from failed Bruce Lee knock-off to full-fledged star. No longer simply a clone of the martial arts legend, Chan does his own thing here—literally creating the antithesis of Lee: an action hero that actually feels and expresses pain.
Chan plays the legendary Wong Fei-Hong, a recurring hero in hundreds of martial arts films—most notably the “Once Upon A Time In China” series starring Jet Li. What sets this interpretation apart was that Chan did not play Fei-Hong as a strong-willed hero with specific goals in mind, but rather as a young scoundrel who would do anything to get out of doing any real work.
Fei-Hong is in great disfavor with his father who decides that the infamous Siu Tien Yuen must train Fei-Hong. Legend has it that Yuen has killed students with his arduous training techniques, causing Fei-Hong to do what he does best—run away. While trying to get out of paying for a meal, Fei-Hong is beat within an inch of his life only to be saved by Yuen who happens to be in the same restaurant. After beating off the hapless kitchen staff, Yuen and Fei-Hong engage in a battle that shows that Yuen’s martial arts skills are far superior to Fei-Hong’s.
Fei-Hong agrees to be taught by Yuen who instructs him in the ancient style of the drunken master, a fighting style primarily consisting of drinking to excess and stumbling about until you can catch your opponent off-guard and kick their ass (a style of fighting that seems to be popular among the hapless and shirtless detainees on COPS). Fei-Hung (still determined to be done with Yuen) escapes, only to be disgraced by killer for hire Jang Lee Hwang. Fei-Hung is broken by Hwang to the point that he realizes he must go back to his teacher and fully learn the drunken master technique. With revenge on his mind, Fei-Hung drinks and sloshes away until he can become the drunken master.
In “Drunken Master,” Chan displays an amazing sense of comic ability and sheer strength. His physical feats are simply incredible to watch and he is certainly the only martial arts star that can be easily compared to the likes of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. In “Drunken Master,” the viewer is availed the opportunity to see a truly unique star in the making.
For casual or die-hard fans of martial arts, the commentary track by Hong Kong film expert Ric Meyers is excellent. He offers full insight into Chan and “Drunken Master’s: place in the history of martial arts films. However, he does spend a bit too much time listing some of the other cast members credits from the Internet Movie Database.
While not as technically up-to-par as some of his later films, including “Drunken Master II” (known in the U.S. as “The Legend Of Drunken Master”), this is still a fun film and highly recommended to fans of Chan and the genre.