Antique martial arts movies have a cult following in the United States, but they are not as widely accepted as contemporary action flicks. With movies like Shanghai Noon and Rumble in the Bronx, Jackie Chan has broken down the barrier between these two genres, bringing old-school martial arts into mainstream American action films.
Using Americanized humor combined with exceptional fight scenes, Chan’s movies present the perfect medium. Although Chan has been successful in the United States, his film roots lay firmly in China. Currently showing in theatres, Chan’s latest movie, The Legend of Drunken Master, is an American release of one of the Chinese films that first established Chan as a prominent martial arts movie figure. English dialogue is dubbed over the original movie, making it awkward at times.
This movie does not show Chan in an American role, but rather as Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-Hung, a talented martial artist who has begun to delve into the art of drunken boxing – a technique of weaving and bobbing to confuse opponents. Fei-Hung drinks alcohol to get free movement and increased pain resistance for this comical style of fighting. Wong Fei-Hung studies the unusual fighting style against his father’s wishes, and he must eventually employ it to foil a band of gangsters that attempts to exploit his hometown by stealing ancient artifacts.
Drunken Master has all the elements of a classic martial arts film combined with a unique comedic style. The sight of Chan’s familiar face makes the overdubbing bearable and at times unnoticeable. The dialogue is slightly amusing, but not laugh-out-loud funny. It is not the kind of slapstick comedy the previews make it out to be.
This movie is distinctly Chinese and employs a very different type of humor than American audiences are used to. It certainly does not use the foreigner-in-a-strange-land humor featured in most of Chan’s American releases.
Drunken Master serves as pure candy for hardcore martial arts fans. Fight scenes are as elaborate as they come, at times pitting Chan up against as many as 30 people. The movie’s final climatic confrontation took almost four months to film. Chan really strived for perfection in his application of the techniques. His disjointed, drunken fighting style is unique to this movie and like nothing he has done before. At times Chan’s fighting abilities are so super-human they become comical. The stunts are impressive, especially considering Chan’s refusal to use body doubles or stunt men. Chan shows that he is willing to go to great lengths to create great action sequences.
The plot is not particularly gripping and is confusing at times. It is often hard to tell why groups are fighting. Drunken Master isn’t really about characters or conflict development. It mostly centers on the way conflict is resolved, usually in outrageously complex battle scenes pitting Chan against a mass of adversaries. Although the movie is based on a rich legend, its plot lacks development.
While The Legend of Drunken Master may not be for all audiences, it is a worthy compliment to Chan’s American collection. It delivers some new twists, but viewers who are not fans of traditional Shanghai films might be disappointed.
Drunken Master is worth seeing if you are in the mood for lots of butt-kicking, but don’t expect too much in the way of plot. Although it is distinctly Chinese, this film buys heavily into one American action movie standard: action first, plot second.