I know its a bit difficult to take Jackie Chan seriously given his choice of projects in recent years (like this week’s The Spy Next Door). With the exception of the animated films he has voiced, his live action films indicate a complacency in churning out mediocre fare thats only meant to generate box office and a big paycheck. However, Jackie Chan will go down in film history alongside Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and Harold Lloyd as one of the greatest physical actors to have lived. With today’s CG technology, an actor can perform seemingly impossible and literally impossible feats on-screen with a few bits of programming code. Jackie Chan, on the other hand, is capable of performing acts of physical display without any computer effects. Throw in Chan’s wonderful sense of comic timing and you can easily see why he has become one of the world’s greatest movie stars.

The Legend of Drunken Master (Drunken Master II is its Hong Kong title) is considered one of Jackie Chan’s greatest films. The plot of the film is nothing original or great, but you don’t watch a Jackie Chan movie for the story just as you don’t watch a Charlie Chaplin flick for the story. The story revolves around Wong Fei Hung, the son of a village doctor who becomes accidentally involved with the British consol’s illegal smuggling operation of ancient Chinese artifacts. To stop the smugglers, Fei Hung employs a style of martial arts called Drunken Boxing. Drunken Boxing enables the fighter to become stronger when he drinks alcohol, but if he drinks too much alcohol, he becomes too drunk and unable to fight.

I know the story sounds lame, but go with me on this. The fight sequences in Drunken Master are drop-dead amazing! I will guarantee you will rewind some if not all of the fight scenes and watch them again. Having been around CG effects in another life, I can tell when something is computer generated or at least aided by computer effects. However, there were moments in this film where although I knew no computer effects were used, I kept telling myself there is no way some of these moves could have been accomplished by anyone without some technological aid. I kept looking for what I knew wasn’t there, namely some use of CG effects. If you have only seen Chan’s U.S. films, then you have not really seen him in true form. I don’t know whether it is due to insurance issues, but Chan’s action stunts in his U.S. films are tame compared to what he pulls off in his Hong Kong movies. In Drunken Master, we are treated to about 4 or 5 action sequences with each outdoing the previous sequence in intensity. By the time you reach the climax, you are treated to a 30 minute balls-to-the-floor martial arts explosion that rivals and even surpasses the more expensive stuff you see in the Matrix films. There are two other sequences that have become famous and widely seen showcases of Chan’s skills. One takes place in a tea house and its awesome to say the least. The other takes place outdoors and its the first display of Chan’s Drunken Boxing. Even if you’re not interested in seeing this film, I urge you to find these scenes on YouTube and watch them.

With Jackie Chan’s formidable martial arts abilities, its easy to forget what a great comic actor he is as well. I was first introduced to his comedic talents in the Rush Hour movies. I remember being quite impressed in how well Chan was able to match Chris Tucker’s talents. Here, Chan plays a more impish character who imbues a certain level of naivety and innocence into Fei Hung. The high point of Chan’s comedy is when he does his Drunken Boxing. The facial expressions he gives while doing his moves are classic and these scenes reminded me the most of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, both of whom have been cited by Chan as inspirations.

With all this praise, why did I not give Drunken Master 5 stars instead of 4? Plot has always been paramount in how I assess any film. I especially get annoyed with movies that depend on extravagant visual effects sequences to carry the film while offering nothing in the way of story. In my mind, this is pure laziness motivated by financial/commercial greed to make a quick buck off movie audiences. Granted, Hong Kong action films are not especially known for their adept story-telling skills, but that doesn’t excuse them from telling a good story. There were narrative elements in Drunken Master that were interesting, such as Fei Hung’s relationship with his father and the theme of preserving Chinese heritage from greedy, uncaring Westerners. For an action-comedy, Drunken Master had surprisingly heavy dramatic moments that you will rarely, if ever, see in American action-comedies. However, I felt the overall plot was too light and cliche and I wished it had more substance. The villains were also your typically evil cardboard bad guys. Again, I didn’t expect a film like this to have complex antagonists, but I still wished for something different than the norm.

Overall, The Legend of Drunken Master is a film for any lover of martial arts, action films. In fact, if you are a martial arts film buff, then you have most likely seen this movie and probably own it as well. Drunken Master is a fun, silly romp and it shows Jackie Chan at his absolute best.

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