Drunken Master II/Legend of Drunken Master (1994)
For years I’ve heard a lot about how Drunken Master II (aka Legend of Drunken Master) is consistently recommended as one of Jackie Chan’s best films. More specifically, one or two of its action sequences consistently get called among the best that he or anyone else ever filmed – Roger Ebert, no less, said of the film’s climax: “This extended virtuoso effort sets some kind of benchmark: it may not be possible to film a better fight scene.”
Unfortunately, the film has always been pretty hard to come by in the UK – at least to someone who doesn’t pirate movies! I’ve never seen it on TV (even though there was a period between the releases of Shanghai Noon and Knights when things like Who Am I?, Rumble in the Bronx and Police Story were broadcast quite often on terrestrial TV channels), and I’m not even sure if it ever got a UK DVD release prior to the current Blu-Ray release (which only came out in April 2012, according to the online shops I checked).
Still, over the years I’ve resisted the urge to watch YouTubed versions of the fight scenes in the hope that one day I’d be able to watch the whole film properly from start to finish.
So I was delighted to see that LoveFilm had put a streaming version online (under the title of Legend of A Drunken Master and with its predecessor’s DVD blurb, for some reason). But before watching it, I went and rewatched the first Drunken Master. In that review, I described how the movie’s main appeal was its off-balance drunken boxing, which was utterly spectacular to watch:
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.
DM2 has much less in common with DM1 than I thought it would. Again Jackie Chan plays Wong Fei-hung, who again displeases his father (again a martial arts school owner), again some of the fight scenes involve drunken boxing, and again the final bad guy is a kicking specialist – but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. It has a very different feel to the original, due to the urban rather than rural setting (with more crowded scenes, and settings like trains and factories), the lack of training sequences, the fact Wong Fei-hung is older and less of a rebellious joker, the much heavier emphasis on props and weapons in the combat, and the more modern shooting style (none of those DRAMATIC CRASH ZOOM STINGS here!)
However, one thing that did carry across to the sequel was my disappointment at how late in the film the drunken boxing is first introduced. According to the film’s IMDb trivia page (ah, those benchmarks of reliability!), Jackie Chan wanted Drunken Master II to emphasise inebriated combat (like I did!), but the film’s director Chia-Liang Liu wanted it to have a heavier focus on normal kung fu styles. Hence there are only a few fight scenes when the drunken boxing is fully on display. Early on in the film, Jackie announces he’s about to use that fighting style, but it’s not really obvious in the short ensuing fight.
So it’s only midway through the film that we properly get to watch the off-balance intoxicated antics we all came to see, in an outstanding fight against several opponents. It’s probably the funniest of the film’s fight scenes, and it also includes the funniest “alchohol as Popeye’s spinach” moment: “What does it mean when there’s a picture of a skull?”…”GOOD STUFF!”
That’s not to say that the sober fights in the film are poor, though! The opening fight is set underneath a train, which makes for an interesting setting for combat. Late in the film we see Jackie and his ally defend themselves against an onslaught of axe-wielding attackers; Jackie’s weapon is a shaft of bamboo, which gradually deteriorates as the fight goes on, until eventually it looks and handles more like a cat o’ nine tails. In some places, the use of props is almost up there with the stepladder fight from Jackie Chan’s First Strike. It goes without saying that they’re all very well choreographed and directed – if some action didn’t register properly, it’s not due to problems with editing, composition or camera motion, but simply because of the amazing speed at which the actors performed the action.
And then we come to that famous final duel. Roger Ebert’s “it may not be possible to film a better fight scene” assertion was extremely bold, but the sequence comes impressively close to living up to it! Jackie Chan’s most spectacular stunts are the ones involving ridiculous heights – there aren’t any of those in this movie, but in this fight he gets to have his clothes set alight, dodge falling weights that slam into the ground, and scurry across burning coals. In the film City Hunter Jackie Chan got to play Chun Li from Street Fighter (it’s true!), but at one point in this DM2 fight he gets to do E. Honda’s flying headbutt move! But again, it’s the teetering-on-the-edge feel of the drunken boxing that really makes it brilliant.
As for other aspects of the film…
I doubt there are many people who watch Jackie Chan movies for the bits in between the fight scenes, but in this one, they really do feel like quite tedious padding. Most of the non-physical comedy in DM2 fell flat for me – although some works, and fortunately the humour always stays relatively high-brow(!) compared to the broadest moments from the first film! 😉
It should go without saying that there’s not much to the storyline, although hilariously, Wikipedia contributors have somehow managed to stretch its plot synopsis out to 1600 words. One interesting thing about the story is that it’s very clearly set during the period of British colonialism in Hong Kong, and prefigures Rush Hour in depicting the theft of Chinese artefacts by a corrupt English ambassador. Everyone knows that we Brits make the best movie villains, and here we’re represented by a cigar-chomping Consul who looks a bit like Charles Dance in Last Action Hero (now there’s a good baddie comparison for a movie to have, but unfortunately the comparison only extends as far as his looks, and the guy is not a fighter and therefore doesn’t get much screen time). I’m not asking for the film to turn into an in-depth examination of Hong Kong under British rule, but I would have liked the film to make more of the colonial aspects of its setting, and the potentially-interesting plot about the smuggling of a country’s national treasures; but instead, time is spent on subplots like the money problems of Wong Fei-hung’s family.
What plot is there isn’t conveyed very clearly (in particular the switcheroo between the ginseng and the valuable artifact) – perhaps that was just an issue with the dubbed version I watched, and I might have preferred a subtitle track using a literal translation? (Speaking of dubbing: while watching the credits, one voice actor’s name stood out. Is that the Bryan Cranston, and I wonder which character he dubbed…?)
So, is this the best Jackie Chan film?
Maybe, but there are a few I’d have to rewatch and lots I’d have to watch for the first time in order to say for sure. The fights scenes in Drunken Master II are unquestionably better than those of things like Who Am I?, Police Story and Shanghai Noon, but as I recall, those films felt more complete and well-rounded as a whole due to the bits between the stunts and fights standing up better.
But you don’t really care about those bits. You come for the fight scenes – in particular the drunken fight scenes. And boy, the drunken fight scenes are incredible.
4 out of – Hic! – 5