Though hardly likely to score a staggering B.O. upset, “The Legend of Drunken Master” could attract a wider aud than previous “Americanized” versions of Jackie Chan’s Hong Kong-produced hits. Unlike “Operation Condor,” “Twin Dragons” and other recent English-dubbed imports top-lining the acrobatic and charismatic superstar, pic is a lavishly produced period piece that emphasizes hand-to-hand combat more than death-defying stunt work. The extended fight scenes — justly hailed by aficionados as classics of the genre — have earned an R rating for the Dimension Films release, limiting access for Chan’s younger fans. Even so, with nothing else remotely like it in the current megaplex marketplace, “Drunken Master” is well positioned to slake the thirst of action fans for world-class, slam-bang rough stuff.
Reviewed by Variety in its original Cantonese version on May 9, 1994, and long available to North American homevid renters in an English-subtitled version, pic is a follow-up to “Drunken Master” (aka “Drunken Monkey in the Tiger’s Eyes”), the 1978 Hong Kong production that served as Chan’s breakthrough star vehicle. Produced in 1994 as “Drunken Master II,” retitled sequel stands alone as self-contained narrative, with Chan perfectly cast as Wong Fei-hung, a real-life Chinese folk hero who has been portrayed by scores of other actors in literally hundreds of other Asian pics. (Jet Li essays the character in Tsui Hark’s “Once Upon a Time in China” series.)
Set during the early Republican era, “Drunken Master” — filmed on location in Shanghai and Northern China — renders Fei-hung as a reluctant warrior who fights best when he’s nearly blotto. Opening scenes quickly establish Chan’s character as a boyishly impulsive rascal who occasionally annoys his stern but loving father, herbalist and kung-fu master Wong Kei-ying (Ti Lung).
While traveling by train back to their home in Canton, Fei-hung mistakenly grabs a bundle containing an imperial jade seal. Latter has been swiped by agents of a corrupt British consul who’s smuggling Chinese antiquities out of the country. Bad guys pursue the seal, causing no end of trouble for Fei-hung, his family and assorted innocent bystanders.
Director Lau Kar-leung co-stars to good effect as Fu Min-chi, a crafty geezer who’s really an undercover agent on the trail of pilfered antiquities. Helmer and Chan team for two of the pic’s best fight scenes: an early warm-up bout in which the two men duke it out beneath a stalled train, and a jaw-dropping battle royal that pits Min-chi and Fei-hung against dozens of ax-wielding thugs. Both sequences are kinetically staged in a fashion that recalls nothing so much as the elaborate choreography of classic Hollywood musicals.
Even more impressive, however, is the pic’s grand finale, a protracted grudge match between Fei-hung and a smooth-talking villain (Low Houi-kang, aka Ken Lo, Chan’s real-life bodyguard) in a steel factory. Even with flashes of Chan’s trademark comic shtick, battle is gruelingly intense and occasionally vicious, yet also remarkably graceful, fluid and antic. Try to imagine a seriocomic clash between Buster Keaton and Gene Kelly. Outtakes shown during the closing credits underscore just how dangerous the scene was: Chan really did singe himself when flung atop a pile of burning hot coals.
Nitpickers might complain that Chan, who was 40 when “Drunken Master” was filmed, is at least 10 or 15 years too old to be completely believable as the ingenuously rambunctious Fei-hung. (It doesn’t help much that co-star Ti Lung appears only slightly older than his “son.”) But never mind: Chan is so exuberantly appealing — and, more important, so physically formidable — that he transcends any calendar-related quibbles.
He’s especially amusing when, 30 minutes into the pic, Fei-hung first demonstrates the tricky martial artistry of drunken boxing. After a few drinks — well, OK, after several drinks — he’s a better fighter because his body is looser, more flexible and less responsive to pain. If he miscalculates and over-imbibes, however, he can’t always differentiate between friend and foe. And, worse, there’s always a nasty hangover.
Standouts in supporting cast include Ti Lung, Lau and, best of all, Anita Mui as Fei-hung’s scheming, gambling-addicted stepmother. (At times, Mui appears to be channeling the spirit of Lucille Ball.) English dubbing supervised by Rod Dean is unabashedly crude, though not as deliberately funny as the similarly slapdash Americanized soundtrack of the recent “Godzilla 2000.” Other tech credits are fine.
The box office verdict may be viewed as an early indicator of U.S. commercial prospects for the far more stylized and spectacularly flamboyant “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the Ang Lee magnum opus arriving (in an English-subtitled edition) at year’s end.