The fun of any of Jackie Chan’s early Chinese movies is in the thrill of seeing someone doing something potentially mortally dangerous, and getting away with it. Sure, there’s the fighting: exchanges of blows, grips, kicks, characters moving against each other like in a dance. But the real meat of the experience is seeing Jackie and his cadre of stuntmen do things that look like it should get them killed, and surviving.
Drunken Master II, originally released in the U.S. as Legend of Drunken Master, has some of the most incredible such death defying of Jackie’s career. The film has a story that surrounds the set pieces and gives justification to the action, but it’s perfunctory. It’s there to make sure the actors have a conflict so they can punch each other and climb over the furniture.
Jackie stars as Fei-hung, the ne’er-do-well son of a doctor who is constantly disappointed in his son’s antics, particularly (and bafflingly) his devotion to the martial art his father taught him, drunken boxing. The father, played by Lung Ti, was 48 when the movie was released, only 8 years older than Jackie. Chan was getting a little long in the tooth for playing a mischievous child role.
Part of his mischief is trying to get his father’s precious ginger root through customs without having to pay the tax. In doing so, he sets off a chain of events that gets him targeted by government officials who are helping the occupying British smuggle Chinese artifacts out of the country.
The complications of this plot lead into the film’s many astounding action sequences. There are maybe seven fight scenes (depending on how one counts these things) all in different circumstances and with bravura physical difficulties. The first takes place largely underneath a train, where Fei-hung has to dodge a spear while hunched over on his knees. Later, there’s an energetic brawl in a town square where, to fuel his drunken boxing Fei-hung’s stepmother, played by Anita Mui (almost 10 years younger than Jackie) plies him with all the alcohol she can get her hands on. The acrobatics are astounding, as is Jackie’s seemingly uncontrolled lurches and pivots while he fights.
The drunken boxing style is really all that connects this film to the original Drunken Master, which was Jackie Chan’s first breakthrough hit in 1978. There he played a similarly useless student whose father was disappointed in him, and the bad guys wanted to take the father’s land, which is a plot point in this film as well. Much of that film’s running time is taken up with training sequences, punctuated by combat. It was also set in an earlier era, which Drunken Master II takes place vaguely in the early 20th century.
There’s no real training in Drunken Master II, so that time is filled up with comic scenes. How comic these are might depend on one’s tolerance for broad slapstick, mugging for the camera, and sudden wild shifts into maudlin emotionalism. The character and story elements of these films are always the weak point, and Drunken Master II did not make great strides in that department.
But the fighting. Two incredible sequences stand out for their inventiveness, length, physicality and brutality. Fei-hung and an old master are upstairs in a tavern when they are assaulted by an axe gang(!) of apparently limitless size. How ever many guys they throw out of one window, more pour into another. It takes place on multiple levels, with Chan and his fighting partner Chia-Liang Liu using the environment as defensive and offensive weapons before practically tearing the entire building down around them. And then there’s the climactic battle in the steel mill, which is pointless to describe. It has to be seen, but the athleticism of Chan and his various opponents is incredible. So, too, is Chan’s commitment to making the combat look rugged and painful. When Chan gets hit, it hurts, and he lets you know it. That’s part of the charm and beauty of his performances.
As a movie that tells a story, Drunken Master II has a lot of major limitations. As a martial arts spectacle, it has nearly none. It’s peak Jackie Chan, and it deserves a peak release. Unfortunately, this Warner Archive Blu-ray has some deficiencies in that regard. The video is fine, though as someone who lived in an era where this kind of movie was only available shoddily transferred on copied VHS, anything that looks halfway decent seems like a miracle to me. The problem comes with a complete lack of extras, and with the subtitles. The extras are missed because this film, which was Jackie Chan’s last Chinese movie before Rumble in the Bronx made him a household name in the U.S., had a troubled production. There are rumors that Chan directed parts of the film, and had a falling out with the credited director during the production. Information about that, and some behind-the-scenes footage on the astounding fight sequences would have been welcome.
Less forgivable is the subtitle situation. There are three language options on the disc – Mandarin, Cantonese, and English. That’s fine, but the subtitles available only come in two flavors: the original Hong Kong release subs, which have mistranslations and bad grammar, and a SDH dubtitled track. SDH is subtitles for hard of hearing – specifically, they’re just the closed captioning track formatted for subs, including sound effects. But these are based not on an accurate translation of the original Chinese language track. They’re a transcript of the dub, which took liberties and added audio where there was none in the original. It’s a disappointing aspect of the release.
The HK subtitles are cute, though, and entertaining in their wonkiness, and that’s the major thrust of the film. Drunken Master II is an entertainment, a show designed to wow an audience. And wow is the appropriate response to the gymnastics and martial antics on screen. The acrobatics, fighting, and stunt work make a dodgy story and wonky translation completely immaterial. Watching people do dangerous things is one of the purist cinematic arts, and Drunken Master II‘s fight are some of the greatest expressions of just that.
Drunken Master II has been released on Blu-ray by Warner Archive. It includes English subtitles, and Cantonese, Mandarin, and English dubbed audio. Besides a trailer, there are no extras on the disc.