Legend of the Drunken Master – Blu-ray Review

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Just as it’s been discussed many times before, when it comes to picking the best film out of the over 100 movies that have starred Jackie Chan, there’s usually only a handful of films that enter the discussion. Chan classics such as the first two Police Story films, Project A, its sequel, and Supercop all make a strong argument to be the best movie the action star has ever graced with his amazing acrobatics and comedic talents. For my money, though, the title undisputedly goes to his 1994 masterpiece Legend of the Drunken Master (AKA: Drunken Master II), which is not only the star’s best effort onscreen, but it’s not ridiculous hyperbole to claim that the movie is perhaps one of the two or three best Martial Arts movies ever committed to celluloid.

Now, with that said, this isn’t a movie that features a deep and moving story with intricate plot details, but often is the case that most legends aren’t very heavy on plot to begin with. This is a simple tale in which Chan plays Wong Fei-Hung, a Chinese folk-hero probably on the level of a Wyatt Earp or a Davey Crockett, who must simply learn to believe in himself and his abilities in order to do battle against evil. Played on screen by some of the biggest stars to ever come out of Hong Kong (Jet Li, Gordon Liu, etc.), most portrayals of Fei-Hung, whether as a child, as he is in Iron Monkey, or as an adult, such as Jet Li’s portrayal in the Once Upon a Time in China series, are usually played with great reverence. Chan’s portrayal, on the other hand, is something else entirely.

It was actually Chan’s first outing as Wong Fei-Hung in 1979’s original Drunken Master that first made him an international star, and in that turn as well as this follow-up 16 years later, we see Fei-Hung in a more formative period. This isn’t the serious, almost superhuman guise so many others have given the man onscreen, but instead he’s an impish troublemaker, often shucking responsibility and starting fights at the drop of a hat, and constantly getting into trouble with his father (Ti Lung). It was Drunken Master that first gave the world the real Jackie Chan onscreen, a persona that was equal parts Buster Keaton and Bruce Lee, and this sequel is Chan living up to his initial promise by giving us his best onscreen hero and most incredible physical performance.

Chan takes Fei-Hung from wily youngster to champion of the people in a simple plot; one in which foreigners and other villains must be stopped from chipping away at Chinese culture. Whether they’re stealing famous artifacts or buying up cultural centers, such as Fei-Hung’s family owned Martial Arts school, these men are up to no good, and when no one will stand up to them, it falls to the Drunken Master to save the day. Is this plot pretty standard? Yes. Is Jackie Chan’s performance anything less than extraordinary? No.

What we’re talking about in terms of fight scenes, are the greatest of Jackie Chan’s career, and this is saying something considering the movies I mentioned above and other incredible feats given to us in dozens and dozens of pictures. This is made even more impressive considering that the original director of the film, Lau Kar-Leung, left the production before its completion, citing differences in the artistic direction of the picture with the film’s star. Fortunately, the movie had a pretty excellent director of action movies on hand; Jackie Chan himself.

A rarity in these situations, the change in direction actually seems to help the film as it goes along. Lau Kar-Leung (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) is one of the great directors in the history of Hong Kong cinema, but he wanted to keep the film’s fighting as real as possible, with little to no wirework. While this works for much of the film, the picture’s finale could have been hurt by this decision, limping across the finish line by not being able to top a giant sequence just minutes before, in which Fei-Hung fought dozens of axe-wielding adversaries.

Chan, on the other hand, wanted the film’s finale to absolutely explode with action, with wires used to only intensify the amazing hand to hand combat being displayed onscreen. With the star winning out in their feud, what you end up with is a movie that nearly perfectly builds and builds upon its action sequences, and then ends the picture with a sequence that has rarely, if at all, been topped in regards to physical acrobatics, intricacy and endurance. It is possible that the scene may never actually be topped again, as instances such as Chan himself crab-walking through a pit of fire and hot coals would surely be done with CGI or at least stuntmen today, taking away much of the exhilaration the sequence brings you, knowing what you see on screen is happening for real.

What we get in this movie, is what is ostensibly the director of the film putting his life on the line to entertain his audience by doing an unbelievable stunt, and then, as we see in the outtakes during the closing credits, he does it again. This is on top of Chan’s already outstanding and extended fight sequence with Ken Lo, his real life body-guard, who does some of the most outstanding high kicking outside of Tony Jaa I’ve ever seen. Make no mistake about it; this is a world class screen fight between two opponents doing everything they can to keep you riveted.

If that weren’t enough, even when lives are not on the line the movie stays consistently entertaining throughout, with Chan doing his customary slapstick, and the late Anita Mui giving a virtuoso comedic performance. The duo is pretty dynamite, with Mui leaving a lasting impression with her over the top antics, even outshining Chan’s jocular stylings at times. Not to be totally outdone, veteran Hong Kong actor Ti Lung (John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow) unfortunately gets to be the straight man here, but still turns in strong work to round out the cast.

All in all, this is everything you could ever want from a Jackie Chan epic, and then somehow, Chan just ends up giving you more. The stunts and fights are more spectacular, the laughs are just a little bit bigger, and in the end you’re left with the euphoria of watching something truly special. While Chan has kept entertaining us since the time of this film’s release, Legend of the Drunken Master may end up the star’s last truly great work in front of the camera, but what an amazing testament to his ferocity and determination as an entertainer. If you only ever see one Jackie Chan film, make it this one.

Here’s where we’re going to run into the most problems and arguments when it comes to this disc. First off, while visually the movie is a vast improvement over any other version of this I’ve ever seen, the print they used on this transfer is still pretty degraded and features a LOT of debris and scratches. There obviously wasn’t a ton of effort to restore the movie for this disc, but still this is a marked improvement over previous versions I’ve seen, especially the worn out Tai Seng VHS that I’ve had of this movie for the last 12 years or so.

Now, where the most controversy over this Blu-ray disc is going to come from is from fans who will be outraged about the exclusion of the original language track, which hasn’t been seen since that Tai Seng VHS. This is an interesting situation though. First off, that original track was itself a dub, as the movie was originally shot with no sound. Secondly, Jackie Chan himself did not even do the voice dub for the original language track, and the only place you can actually hear Jackie Chan’s real voice for this movie, is with this English dub. It’s like people who really prefer the original Italian track for The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, but don’t seem to realize that none of the original actors do voices on that track.

Now mind you, there are some things that I like better from the original version, especially when it comes to fight effects and portions of the score, which flow better than what’s here. I prefer the over-the-top punching sounds from the original, but that’s just me enjoying the Hong Kong style sound design. If you’re used to hearing certain sounds, when you switch to a more reserved soundscape, the experience can be a little jarring.

That’s what you’re in for here, but I still recommend getting this for the visual upgrade.

Interview with Jackie Chan – This is kind of a short interview, but it’s nice to get insights about this production and Jackie’s experience with bringing it to the States. I wish we could get a feature-length documentary about this film, but alas it was not to be.

Trailers

If you love Jackie Chan or you’ve ever wondered why he is so beloved, then I absolutely recommend this disc. Getting to watch this movie in HD is a real treat and reminded me all over again why I love it so much. While it’s not a perfect version of this movie, it may be the best one out there, and one that belongs in any Martial Arts lover’s collections.


Miramax presents Legend of the Drunken Master. Directed by: Lau Kar-Lueng, Jackie Chan (uncredited). Starring: Jackie Chan, Ti Lung, Ken Lo, and Anita Mui. Written by: Edward Tang, Tong Man-Ming, and Yun Kai-Chi. Running time: 102 Minutes. Rating: R. Released on Blu-ray: Septempber 15, 2009. Available at Amazon.com

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