At the age of 40, Jackie Chan reached his pinnacle of virtuosity as an adept slapstick comedian, martial arts expert, fight choreographer, and stuntman actor with “The Legend of Drunken Master” (1994). This is the big bad mother of all martial arts movies. It is chockablock with Jackie Chan performing outrageous fight sequences, many involving large numbers of participants using various found objects as weapons.
Jackie Chan draws on the comic sensibilities of Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, and Charlie Chaplin in order to imbue his character with intellectual wit and grace of movement. The film’s 20-minute climax is one of the most athletic and dangerous martial arts sequences ever filmed. When Jackie Chan crawls across hot coals, that’s Jackie Chan doing the deadly stunt for real. Large heavy objects fall close to Jackie Chan’s frequently imbibing character. As we discover during the film’s closing outtakes, not all missed hitting him.
The film — not to be confused with Jackie Chan’s 1978 kung fu movie “Drunken Master” — is a broad comedy populated with archetypal characters of Chinese comic tradition. A theme-carrying subplot, involving the theft of Chinese cultural artifacts by a local mafia, identifies the film’s core of nationalist sovereignty beneath the wild physical action and screwball humor that explodes from the screen. The brutality of China’s social conditions is nonetheless implied by the film’s environment of violent crime.
Jackie plays Wong Fei-hung, loyal son of a strict father and a wily stepmother, Ling (Anita Mui), whose martial arts skills are equal to that of Fei-hung. Anita Mui’s hilarious performance is all the more silly because she plays Fei-hung’s stepmother when she is in fact nine years Jackie Chan’s junior. Ling runs a martial arts school where she teaches a style of kung fu known as “drunken boxing.” As the name implies, the technique involves the practitioner getting drunk, really very drunk.
Jackie Chan’s gravity defying execution of drunken boxing finds his character endowed with super powers in relation to how much booze he drinks. Fei-hung uses alcohol in direct ways as well, as when he lights a rival on fire by spitting alcohol at a flame.
The originality of the film’s many dynamic fight scenes sustains the action with escalating surprises. Fei-hung goes against a small army of men with a large piece of bamboo that he transforms from a truncheon into a slicing weapon. In another confrontation Fei-hung kicks dirt in an opponent’s face as an opening gambit using available resources. You’ve never seen a fighter attack another with a chin to the eye-socket before. Such is the wealth of martial arts knowledge woven into the film’s beautifully accomplished action set pieces.
The joy in Jackie Chan’s face is infectious. It’s clear in the outtakes that he was sitting on top of the world when performing stunts for one of the funniest and action-packed martial arts movies ever made. Jackie Chan’s physical ingenuity brings with it an enormous history as a naturally gifted storyteller whose development dates back to his life as a childhood actor.
Rated R. 102 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)