The success of “Shanghai Noon” earlier this year may smooth the road for greater audience acceptance of this dubbed, ever-so-slightly re-edited version of Jackie Chan’s 1994 Hong Kong action-comedy classic than that which met similarly Americanized versions of others of his Asian flicks. “The Legend of Drunken Master,” like “Noon,” is a big period piece, and it showcases Chan’s skills in much the same way. In Anita Mui it also embraces the sort of strong farcical element that Owen Wilson brought to the more recent picture.
Supposedly based on a folk hero and set in the latter years of the mainland republic, “Master” centers on Wong Fei (Chan), the likably goofy elder son of a distinguished martial arts teacher (Ti Lung) who instructs pupils in the “drunken boxing” style; this involves the fighter acting as though alcoholically impaired (or in some cases actually being so), in order to engage in unexpected moves and endure greater punishment. Through a variety of mishaps, our protagonist learns of a plot to steal Chinese antiquities involving the incredibly nasty British ambassador and his local minions, as well as a scheme to steal his father’s property and abuse the workers in a British-run steel factory. Much mayhem ensues, as well as a lot of juvenile humor, most of it generated by Mui as Wong’s ferociously mugging stepmother, who eggs the boy on while constantly manipulating his father.
“Master” is hardly a subtle or elegantly constructed picture, but it delivers the goods in terms of both kung-fu action and brash farce. Chan’s affable personality and incredible dexterity, most prominently exhibited in a fantastically protracted battle sequence in the last half-hour involving fire, wooden planks and bubbles of all things, carry the day nicely, and Mui adds a portrait of a screwball dame that would have done Rosalind Russell or Lucille Ball proud. Mention must also be made of the turn by director Lau Ka Leung as an elderly patriot and the fighting ability of Low Houi Kang as Wong’s ultimate nemesis.
There are moments when “The Legend of Drunken Master” goes a bit off the rails. Some of the jokes, especially in the first thirty minutes or so, are just too puerile for words. Segments about father-son tension in the middle get overly serious and melodramatic. And a sequence in a British jail is unecessarily brutal. But when one beholds the younger Chan’s extraordinary fighting grace, criticism is silenced; it’s not unlike watching an Astaire or Kelly doing their terpsichorean magic. When you add Mui’s charmingly extravagant shtick and the high-class technical sheen to the mix, you’ve got a product which, while limited by the very requirements of its genre, is generally amusing and sometimes positively exhilarating. The dubbing is adequate. If I had my druthers, the picture would best be viewed in the original Cantonese with subtitles, but if this is what it takes to get Americans into the multiplexes to see it, so be it. After all, the dialogue is what matters least in a movie like this. (P.S. Be sure to stay during the final crawl for the patented Chan outtakes, which demonstrate just just dangerous some of his stunts were.)