Viking Night: Drunken Master
By Bruce Hall
May 3, 2011

Do the hustle!

Jackie Chan is one of the most accomplished action stars in the world. This probably sounds strange to Western ears but just like the metric system, for most of his career, Jackie Chan was the best kept secret in America. Some of you know what I’m talking about but for everyone else, I know you’ve seen all three Rush Hour films. I know they were huge. Maybe you even saw those silly movies he made with Owen Wilson, the ones whose titles I can’t make myself say without rolling my eyes. Oh, those wacky East/West comedies and their politically incorrect ethnic humor...

Without a doubt, Jackie Chan is one of the most recognized Asian stars in America. But in much of the rest of the world he’s more popular than Starbucks, and it isn’t because of Brett Ratner. He’s made over a hundred films, is a legitimately respected professional vocalist and is one of the world’s top stuntmen. He’s a renowned philanthropist, a successful entrepreneur and is a national hero in China. He’s retained a relevant place in the entertainment world for over 30 years and he accomplished it by standing on the shoulders of giants, and throwing himself right back off again.

Bruce Lee's death hadn’t been in the papers for a day before the race to cash in on his life began. Martial arts films were the bread and butter of Hong Kong’s action film industry, and everyone in town was looking for the right pair of fists to be The Dragon’s replacement. Jackie Chan had worked as a stuntman on a couple of Lee’s films, and to some, the athletic kid with the honest face seemed a natural candidate. The resulting movie, New Fist of Fury, was a failure at the box office. It was also meant as a direct sequel to one of Lee’s films, giving it even more of a special place in the annals of cinematic grave robbery.

Lucky for us, Jackie Chan is more than just an inadequate substitute for Bruce Lee. He’s his own man and over the course of a long and groundbreaking career, he’s earned his own legend. Chan finally came into his own with a film called Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, his first starring role in an action comedy. But it was his next film, Drunken Master, that first took full advantage of Chan’s abilities, solidifying the genre as legitimate and immediately spawning a slew of imitators. It may be the sincerest form of flattery, but does the original live up to its reputation?

Wong (Chan) is a smart mouthed adolescent who lets his free time get him into trouble. His father runs a kung fu school so the kid knows how to fight, and his family’s wealth makes it easy for him to talk his way out of trouble. The hot tempered punk spends his days chasing women, picking fights and pushing his smug sense of entitlement around town. Soon, Wong runs afoul of one of his father’s oldest friends, and badly beats another man in a street fight, causing great embarrassment to his family. Enraged, Wong's father banishes the boy to the care of a family friend known as “Beggar Su” (Simon Yuen). Wong is put on a brutal training regimen, meant to discipline the boy and build his character. Wong resists, running away the first chance he gets.

While away, the rebellious lad runs into a mysterious stranger named “Thunderleg” and provokes the man with his usual bravado. They fight, and Thunderleg beats Wong’s ass like a ginger stepchild, to put it mildly. He openly humiliates the boy and mocks his training, claiming that to kill him would be a waste of time. Wong crawls back to Su a humbled man and begs forgiveness. The biggest bully in China has met his match and learned his lesson, so cue the zany training montage. Wong dedicates himself to learning Master Su’s Drunken Boxing style of kung fu - which of course, requires you to BE drunk before it will work. Hilarity ensues and it’s a good thing. Wong doesn’t know it yet but he and Thunderleg will meet again, and all the knowledge Wong has gained will be put to the test.

You don’t have to be a kung fu movie nerd to know that this sounds pretty much like the plot to 80% of all martial arts films ever made. But it’s fair to point out that a major part of Chinese culture is the belief that honor and discipline are what give you the ability to use strength with discretion. So yes, a whole lot of kung fu films tend to be about these things. But what made Drunken Master refreshing at the time was that it was a shameless action comedy. The majority of martial arts heroes were pitiless, indestructible dispensers of moral justice. Chan’s characters were usually comically flawed knuckleheads who mean well, but need to learn something about themselves before they can prevail. The formula took a couple of movies to refine, but by more or less taking the plot to Chan’s previous film and adding the concept of drunken boxing, the brain trust behind Drunken Master hit upon a gold mine.

Wong is the Chinese equivalent of a spoiled rich suburban kid, tooling around town in a shiny Camaro, breaking mailboxes and doing donuts on your front lawn. He learns the value of humility, and that the best way to appreciate the power of strength is to be put in a position of weakness. There really is a Drunken style of kung fu, but alcohol has nothing to do with it. The movements require incredible precision and strength, and it’s actually a little funny to watch because fighters do look like they’re stumbling around drunk. Chan’s phenomenal physical conditioning is up to the physical challenge, but it’s his good natured charm that gives the second half of Drunken Master its momentum.

By the way, it also makes you sit and wonder how in the hell a person gets themselves into that kind of freaky physical shape. Apparently it involves doing squats over a sharpened stick for five hours a day. Also, hanging upside down from a nine foot wooden board while filling couple of thirty gallon barrels with shot glasses. It sounds brutal, but Wong is such a loveable dope that everything stays light. Believe me, this is the kind of film where even a kid can see how it’s going to end before it’s halfway over. It’s best not to try to get too serious with material like that.

Speaking of all that humor, I should confess that a lot of it isn’t the sort of humor most Americans are used to. The Chinese seem to have a much greater tolerance for interminably long slapstick routines than Americans do. Don’t get me wrong. Watching a guy like Jackie Chan doing physical comedy is like watching a parakeet tap dance. You just can’t believe what you’re seeing. Despite this, a few of the gags do wear out their welcome for me. Like a Mel Brooks film, the whole thing is supposed to be funny, but it goes on longer than it STAYS funny. But in this case, a lot of this is lost in translation. I don’t know what happened with Mel Brooks.

Bruce Lee may have burned brighter, but Jackie Chan has been given lifetime to entertain us, and like his idol, he’s committed to using his celebrity to make a difference in the lives of strangers. If you’re not turned off by old school kung fu flicks, and the only Jackie Chan you’ve ever seen is the one who stands there cringing while Chris Tucker shrieks like a mouse, then check out Drunken Master. Even if you never watch another martial arts movie again, it’s good fun watching Jackie Chan drink (fake) wine and bend himself into a pretzel. Who knows; maybe you’ll develop a whole new appreciation for martial arts. The next thing you know, you’ll be ready to give the metric system a chance.