Jackie Chan is one of cinema’s most valuable treasures: a performer as accomplished as any of the great silent comedians and as appealing as any idol from Hollywood’s golden age. Watched together, these two slapstick kung fu classics – shot sixteen years apart – make the best showcase for his astonishing skills.
Real-life martial arts master Wong Fei-Hung is one of the most frequently filmed characters in movie history: since the 1940s, portrayals of the 19th Century folk hero have appeared in over 100 films – but I doubt any of them were more memorable Jackie Chan’s turn in Drunken Master. Far from foreshadowing the emotionally repressed but physically indestructible incarnation later created by Jet Li (in the magnificent Once Upon A Time In China series), Chan plays the young Fei-Hung as a lovable delinquent who, callow and unpredictable, is forever embarrassing his father with his merry insolence and high-kicking hi-jinks.
Despairing of his ability to discipline his troublesome son, the humourless Master Wong eventually forces Fei-Hung into the tutelage of Beggar Su – an aged, hirsute vagrant whose kung fu is unbeatable provided he’s smashed off his face. The dynamic that develops between the scarlet-nosed teacher and his reluctant student will be familiar to fans of The Karate Kid, and the explosions of high-tempo low comedy it leads to well known to admirers of the Marx Brothers. As Beggar Su, Yuen Siu Tien proves himself as much a master of the secret art of scene-stealing as his character is of booze-fuelled fisticuffs – and, in maintaining his equally endearing performance whilst enduring such obvious agonies in the training scenes, Chan defies both physics and physiology.
Everything in the first three-quarters of the film, however, really only exists to set up the finale. When a local land dispute results in a contract being taken out on the life of Wong Sr., Fei-Hung returns home to defend his father against an apparently invincible assassin known as ‘Thunderfoot’ (played by Hwang Jang Lee, a fighter so ferocious he was once challenged to a duel by a South Vietnamese knife-fighting expert and supposedly killed him with a single kick). The resultant eruption of hand-to-hand (and face to foot) combat – in which Jackie uncorks the extra-strong wine and unleashes the legendary Eight Drunken Gods – is as brutal and hilarious as only one of Chan’s cinematic scraps can be.
Drunken Master’s director, Yuen Woo-Ping, is now the most acclaimed fight choreographer in the world – aside from overseeing the action in innumerable Hong Kong classics, he also orchestrated the dazzling dust ups in The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Kill Bill – and the combination of Yuen behind the camera and Chan in front of it creates a level of on-screen excitement inconceivable in 99% of other movies. If you think kung-fu films aren’t for you, watch Drunken Master and think again.
Over a decade and a half after his first outing as Wong Fei-Hung began Chan’s transformation from aspiring star to international icon, he revived the character in a complex but pleasantly lightweight story about British attempts to purloin invaluable Chinese artefacts, a catastrophic mix-up over ginseng, and – of course – the combative benefits of binge drinking.
The main difference between the first Drunken Master and the second is that, while the original is a classic movie starring Jackie Chan, the sequel is a classic Jackie Chan movie. By 1994, Chan had long since switched from mere superhuman actor to superhuman actor-choreographer-director, and Drunken Master II demonstrates the best of everything that makes his films so unmistakable.
Most unmistakable of all is what happens after the film has finished. The end credits of a Jackie Chan film are always welcome – not in the way that the end credits of a Pauly Shore film are always welcome, but because, as the list of key grips and gaffers scrolls up one side of the screen, the other is generally filled with eye-watering outtakes of stunts gone awry. More than anything that actually makes it into the movie, Drunken Master II’s procession of outtakes – in which horrified crewmembers are perpetually rushing into shot brandishing bandages and even fire extinguishers – demonstrates the outrageous risks Chan is prepared to take in pursuit of a perfect stunt.
The action scenes that do feature in the final cut have only one flaw: they are so intricate – and so spectacular – they overwhelm the eyes. Watch this film only once and you’ll miss most of it; I can pretty much guarantee, though, that if you watch it once you’ll want to watch it a least a dozen times more.
One day – and it’ll be one day soon – CGI will render most of Chan’s talents obsolete and all of his risks unnecessary. While that may deprive cinemagoers of whoever would have become his successor, it won’t harm him. Jackie Chan has left a mountain of work that will be enjoyed, regardless of fashions or technical advances, for as long as cinemas exist. The Drunken Master movies sit at its peak.