At long last, the American masses will get a glimpse of what Jackie Chan can really do with the long-overdue wide release of his classic 1994 Hong Kong production “Drunken Master II,” rechristened by Miramax as “The Legend of Drunken Master”. Considered by many Chan fans (including myself) to be the star’s crowning achievement, “Drunken Master” compensates for what it lacks in plot with hearty laughs and truly spectacular action sequences — which still pack the same punch in this re-edited edition.
“Drunken Master,” like all of Chan’s Hong Kong efforts, has a plot that is functional at best. Chan plays Wong Fei-Hung (a character also popularized by the other HK martial arts superstar, Jet Li, in the “Once Upon a Time in China” series), the son of a doctor (Ti Lung) in early-1900s China. A master of the self-explanatory “drunken boxing” style of martial arts, his skills come in handy when he inadvertently stumbles upon a British scheme to steal Chinese artifacts.
A Chan film wouldn’t be complete without comedy, and while he does some great physical gags that emerge from the action scenes, the best comic moments do not come from Chan but co-star Anita Mui. A movie and music sensation in Hong Kong — not to mention frequent Chan co-star — Mui is an absolute riot as Fei-Hung’s stepmother (a most welcome revision from the original version, in which the visibly younger Mui played Chan’s biological parent). As adept at tossing off verbal barbs as she is selling broad slapstick that in lesser hands would be simply preposterous, Mui has expert timing and darn near walks away with the picture. Thankfully, the surprisingly passable dubbing job does no disservice to her work. Likewise, neither does Miramax’s subtle retooling desecrate the Hong Kong cut: simple main titles as opposed to the lavish credit sequences that are usually tacked on; a new score that actually retains a strong Asian flavor; the wise excising of the original’s ludicrous coda.
Keeping Chan in full command of the film, however, is his amazing fighting skill, which has never been showcased quite as well as it is here. Chan’s Hollywood productions and his HK reissues tend to have a big showpiece stunt, like the big fall he takes at the end of “Rush Hour”. “Drunken Master,” on the other hand, is a pure showcase for his raw martial arts ability, which proves more dazzling than any huge death-defying stunt could ever be (though, of course, said-fighting is dangerous in its own right). From the exciting first fight — a sword/spear battle that starts under a train — to the awesomely choreographed, expertly staged final confrontation with a baddie played by Ken Lo (Chan’s real-life bodyguard), “Drunken Master” delivers action goods that are sure to leave everyone absolutely breathless.
That is, everyone who shows up at the theatre — which, sadly, will likely be a small group. Thanks to some curious release choices (“Twin Dragons”?), reissues of Chan’s HK work have suffered a steady decline at the box office. It’s utterly baffling that Miramax waited so long to release “Drunken Master”; if released four years earlier to capitalize on the heat of his spring 1996 breakthrough, “Rumble in the Bronx,” it would have surely sent Chan’s stateside status skyrocketing beyond the mid-level stardom he currently enjoys. But if there’s any justice, the ever-dazzling “Drunken Master” should reverse the trend of diminishing returns — if even for just this one film.