The first thing to know about The Legend of Drunken Master is that there is no Legend of Drunken Master--not really. Miramax/ Dimension's new Jackie Chan release is a repackaging of the star's 1994 Drunken Master 2.
This is not inherently a bad thing. Nearly all Jackie Chan buffs--count this writer among them--consider Drunken Master 2 to be one of his true masterpieces, certainly his best film from the '90s. A six-year-old masterpiece, never-before widely seen in the U.S., is still a masterpiece. Note that I say "widely seen": The film did in fact play in its original Cantonese version (with English and Chinese subtitles) in Chinese neighborhood theaters in the U.S.; the same version later showed up in brief American art-house bookings, sometimes as part of Hong Kong film festivals. For the current release, Miramax has cut, dubbed, and rescored the movie.
Drunken Master 2 was a crucial film in Chan's career, for a number of reasons. For a start, it was the long-awaited sequel to the star's first really huge hit. In 1978, after years of being miscast as a Bruce Lee clone, Chan and first-time director Yuen Wo-Ping--known internationally as the action director on The Matrix and Ang Lee's upcoming Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon--more or less invented the genre of kung fu comedy in Snake in Eagle's Shadow, which was a hit; they followed it with Drunken Master, which made Chan a major star throughout much of the world. Chan delivered a very broad, goofy interpretation of Wong Fei-Hung, the real-life Cantonese hero who was already a popular character in Chinese cinema.
The Legend of Drunken Master
Growing confident as a filmmaker, Chan started to expand his scope; in fact, he seemed to have abandoned his original format altogether until Drunken Master 2. In order to prepare for the film, released around his 40th birthday, he reportedly subjected himself to his most grueling training ever--the film is filled with such incredible fight sequences that the reports are probably true. It's hard to imagine Chan, 46, ever doing anything like this again. Drunken Master 2 may well stand as his final word on true martial arts cinema.
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At the film's beginning, the allegedly teenaged Fei-Hung is returning home from an out-of-town shopping excursion with his father, herbalist Wong Kei-Ying (Ti Lung, a popular '70s martial arts star, best known in America as the star of John Woo's A Better Tomorrow). On the train, he tries to stop a thief (Lau Kar-Leung, who is also the credited director); after an amazing five-minute fight--which neither of them wins--Fei-Hung discovers that he and his adversary have accidentally switched parcels and that he is in possession of a priceless cultural treasure.
The authorities are searching for the treasure, but for the wrong reasons: Corrupt officials, together with evil Anglos, are planning on smuggling precious artifacts out of the country; the thief with whom Fei-Hung fought is in fact a true patriot, who was merely attempting to foil the bad guys' plans. After some comic high jinks with Fei-Hung and his mother (Anita Mui), there is another fight...then a chase...then a little more exposition...another fight...and then (with the exception of maybe 10 minutes' worth of exposition) another four fights.
The final brawl--a fight with the main bad guy (wonderfully played by Chan's real-life bodyguard, Ken Lo), in which, among other horrors, Chan, on his back, must scramble across a bed of actual burning coals--is one of the most amazing such sequences ever made. (Its seven or eight minutes are said to have taken four months to shoot.)
It's easy to recommend Drunken Master 2, but it's unclear at this point how much the American distributor may have damaged it. While The Legend of Drunken Master isn't being screened in time to make specific judgments, we know the following: Jackie did his own dubbing (good sign); in the trailer, the other dubbed voices sound inane. Miramax's film is 87 minutes, roughly 15 minutes shorter than the original. Since Drunken Master 2's main raison d'être is its action scenes, the loss of some of the exposition doesn't strike me as that much of a travesty, despite my loathing of the practice on general principle. Indeed, there is one brief scene that I assume, I hope, I pray, will be cut: The original's final shot was one of Chan's worst decisions ever, a grotesquely tasteless joke that capped a wonderful movie like a turd atop an ice cream sundae.