Drunken Master (1978)
Although Jackie Chan’s best known for his incredible death-defying stunts, he started off in martial arts movies that take place firmly on solid ground. Drunken Master is still the only film from that period of his career that I’ve seen, and it’s a good one. The main character is a Chinese folk hero called Wong Fei-hung, probably best known from Jet Li’s Once Upon A Time In China movies, but in Drunken Master Jackie Chan plays him as a rebellious prankster. Have a read of this review of the film for a good summary of why this was such an original portrayal at the time.
Make no mistake – the comedy in this film is broad. Very broad. So broad, it makes the eighth series of Red Dwarf look like PG Wodehouse. Now I’ve nothing against slapstick pratfalls (I wouldn’t be watching a Jackie Chan movie if I did), but there are lots of lowest common denominator gags that make me roll my eyes and question why in the world I’m watching it at all. Fortunately, those bits are balanced out by plenty of humour that works: it’s impossible to resist the scene where cartoonish bumps appear when one character gets bonked on the noggin, and I’m oddly fascinated by another character’s exaggerated teeth – but best of all, the smash cut to the “PAY OR DIE!” sign is brilliant!
The film improves as it progresses: the scenes where Jackie Chan’s character plays pranks at his father’s school are a bit tedious, but the movie really picks up when the elderly Beggar Su turns up and begins training him. This martial arts master is played by Yuen Siu-tien, the father of the film’s director/choreographer Yuen “The Matrix” Woo-ping. The training scenes are great; any fan of the Pai Mei training scenes in Kill Bill vol 2 should watch Drunken Master to understand the sort of thing that Quentin Tarantino was aiming for.
Some time after the first training sequences, the drunken fighting style itself is introduced, which is everyone’s real main reason for watching the movie!
The effect of wine on characters who have mastered the secrets of the Eight Drunken Gods is rather like the effect that spinach has on Popeye the Sailor. It’s incredible to watch the characters staggering around, constantly looking like they’re teetering on the edge of falling over, but actually in complete control of their balance. Their off-kilter motions give an absolutely unique look to the fight scenes, making them fascinating to watch – so it’s a shame that the titular fighting style is introduced pretty late in the movie, only after we’ve seen several fairly standard kung fu fights.
Finally, late in the film that drunken kung-fu is put into practice in two excellent fight scenes: first against the “King of Sticks”, and then against our evil baddie, taekwondo expert “Thunderleg” (Hwang Jang Lee). These two fight scenes are among the best “straight” fights (as opposed to those making heavy use of stunts and props) of any Jackie Chan film – right up there with the one that concludes his 1999 film Gorgeous.
The film could do with being a bit shorter: as I said, I would have liked some trimming from the first half’s standard kung fu fights so that the much more interesting drunken style could have been introduced earlier. Also, there’s a good scene where Jackie Chan’s character is humiliated by the villain, but then as soon as it’s over he thinks back to what happened and we see what he remembers – causing the whole scene to be immediately repeated almost identically, pretty much in full! Sure, it conveys Jackie’s humiliation effectively enough – but the film has great editing in the fight scenes, so it’s a shame that that tedious bit couldn’t have been trimmed down a little as well.
So in conclusion, the film’s length and the broadest, stupidest bits of lowbrow comedy are really the only reason I’ve limited my rating to three stars. If you can look past those moments, there are three very good reasons to watch Drunken Master: the training scenes, the bits of physical comedy that do hit the target, and the incredible choreography of the drunken kung fu fight scenes.
Actually, make that four good reasons: no ’70s martial arts movie is truly complete without a few crash zooms into characters’ faces, accompanied by DRAMATIC audio stings, and you certainly get your money’s worth of those here!
[3 out of 5]