Friday, September 18, 2009

Blu-Ray Review - The Legend of Drunken Master

On Tuesday, Sept 15th, Miramax and Buena Vista will be releasing a welcome, if oddly grouped, selection of martial arts films, all making their Blu-ray disc debut. Called the “Ultimate Force of Four” set, which actually makes it sound like a poorly translated Japanese cartoon from the 80s, the set features four popular films starring Hong Kong sensations Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, and even Takeshi Kitano for the sake of cultural diversity. Although some of the films share similar elements, other than being elaborately costumed period shows they have little in common save having been snatched up for American distribution by Miramax Pictures.

The next film, chronologically speaking, is 1994’s The Legend of Drunken Master starring Jackie Chan in another film inspired by the Wong Fei Hung legend – although this time with a far more humorous take. The Wikipedia page on the revered martial artist and doctor says nothing about his ability to drink large amounts of accelerant and fight off Imperial interests “drunken monkey” style, but then again, this is Jackie Chan’s Wong Fei Hung story (actually his second, counting 1978’s The Drunken Master, one of the star’s earliest successes.)

The film was released in Hong Kong in 1994 – the same year that Jackie Chan celebrated his 40th birthday and the last film of Jackie’s “golden era”. The previous 10 years had yielded a stupefying array of breathtakingly choreographed martial arts mayhem in films like the Police Story series, Armor of God, Operation Condor, and Project A; all serving to elevate the Peking Opera-trained star’s reputation as the preeminent performer in the post-Bruce Lee era. Chan’s early career actually overlapped with Lee’s, as the stars can clearly be seen trading blows during the climactic fight in Lee’s swan song, Enter the Dragon (1973). Lee’s template of the stern-faced hero cast a shadow over Hong Kong cinema for years after his death, with many young stars being shoehorned into increasingly formulaic roles. Though Chan’s more successful early pictures, like Snake in Eagle’s Shadow and The Young Master, flirted with a more comic tone, Chan’s early pictures haven’t aged all that well. Early forays into the coveted American action film market yielded the disappointing Battle Creek Brawl in 1980 (seriously, did Robert Clouse really direct Enter the Dragon?) and the unwatchable Golden Harvest-Warner Bros co-production The Protector in 1985. Ironically, Chan seemed far more ‘at home’ in his extended cameo in The Cannonball Run, which reportedly inspired him to use outtakes during his closing credits (“I want you to take these bleeds…”) But once Chan set aside plans for American conquest and concentrated on his Hong Kong films, he quickly blossomed into the most innovative martial arts performer of his – or, frankly, anyone’s – era; comparisons to Buster Keaton aren’t used lightly, and Jackie’s comic inventiveness and creativity was seemingly boundless. Age finally began to catch up with Jackie just as his star was finally ascending in the States; a re-edited and dubbed Rumble in the Bronx served as his official breakthrough American film in 1995, but the film was severely weakened by New Line Cinema’s editing of nearly 15min, loosing most of the show’s more comic moments (some of which can still be glimpsed in the film’s end credit outtakes) and the fact that an injury to Chan’s foot hampered the star’s usual kung-fu theatrics. But Chan’s success in America was assured, and the Shanghai Knights and Rush Hour franchise became world-wide smashes, even if his physical prowess was on a slow, but steady, decline.

The Legend of Drunken Master is the 2000 Miramax retiling of 1994’s Drunken Master II, easily one of Jackie’s best films, and one of the last made during his physical peak. At 40, Chan might seem a bit too young to play the seemingly teenage Fei Hung that we see here, but accuracy has never been the strong suit of the Wong Fei Hung films (a Hong Kong tradition going back to the Second World War) and this is easily the most entertaining that we’ve ever seen. The film begins as more or less a domestic comedy, with Fei Hung caught between his stern father (Ti Lung) and mahjong-playing mother (the late and much missed Anita Mui). Fei Hung’s keen ability at drunken boxing (actually a legitimate form of Wushu called Zui Quan, incorporating movements that make the practitioner appear intoxicated) is frowned upon by his father, even when he uses it to protect his mother against a group of street thugs. But soon Fei Hung runs afoul of a group of smugglers working with a “foreign power” to spirit historically important Chinese art treasures out of the country, culminating in some of the greatest fights in the star’s career.

While watching any of Jackie’s golden era films, we’re always struck by his incredible sense of the proper pacing of the action sequences. While a large scale opening sequence was becoming standard in most HK films of the era, Drunken Master II builds its rhythm slowly; the first one-on-one fight around a stopped train and the aforementioned engagement between Jackie and several street thugs seem to be the equivalent of a martial arts warm-up lap, allowing Jackie (and us) to get used to the drunken boxing style (and no one has ever done this to better effect) so that each subsequent sequence trumps the scene before it. We first saw the film at NYC’s Cinema Village in the mid 90s, and I’m sure that I thought that there would be no way to top Jackie’s encounter with the ‘ax gang’ – a hypnotic sequence involving a two story restaurant and what seems like about 300 ax-armed assassins – until the final fight in the foundry. Jackie’s fight with Ken Lo (a member of Jackie’s lauded stunt team and his personal bodyguard) who amazingly stepped in at the last minute when an injury sidelined the actor slated to appear. Lo’s character, Jon, is a perfect example of the classic martial arts villain, sitting back throughout most of the film wearing a suitably smug expression, just waiting for that perfect moment to show you what an utter badass he is. The sequence is one of Jackie’s very best two-man fights ever filmed. But another supporting actor deserving special mention is the fabulous Anita Mui, playing Jackie’s mother while the actress was almost a full decade his junior. Her scenes with Jackie absolutely sparkle, and the two would be reunited in Rumble in the Bronx. Mui’s comic timing is flawless, taking what could have easily been a forgettable role and making it into something special. Mui had an equally successful career as a pop singer as well, and remained one of Hong Kong’s most beloved entertainment figures until her death from cervical cancer in 2003.