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'Drunken' Chan: He Shakes, He Stirs

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 20, 2000


    The Legend of Drunken Master Jackie Chan flies through the air with the greatest of "Drunken" ease. (Dimension Films)
The Emperor Chan, like all emperors, wants but one thing: global domination. And so for the past five years or so, he has been struggling to overwhelm the one part of the world he does not control, the United States of America.

The Emperor tried to win us by fighting on our terms, in a series of films that haphazardly played with the conventions of the Western thriller, some of which were amusing (like "Rush Hour") and some of which were pretty awful (like "Rumble in the Bronx"). But somehow none of them really ruled, took over, stamped out and crushed all opposition, as the Emperor prefers.

With the release of "The Legend of Drunken Master," Jackie Chan is saying: I now return to my old ways. Old ways are better.

In fact, "The Legend of Drunken Master" is itself an old way. It's a 1994 film – original title "Jui Kuen II," which translates literally into "Drunken Fists II" – that was made primarily for the Asian market without the genre-bending necessary for a big American release. It's really a Hong Kong kung fu opera, unrepentant, full out, sans apology or explanation, goofy as heck, broadly silly and . . . astonishing.

Chan plays Wong Fei-hong, the mischievous son of an herb doctor somewhere in China in what appears to be the '20s. Having ventured to Siberia in search of rare herbs, he tries to avoid paying duty on them on a train trip home by hiding them in the English ambassador's luggage. Of course he retrieves the wrong box, and gets an antiquity (an ancient seal) that the ambassador is smuggling back to England for the British Museum.

But someone else is on the track of the missing seal, a Manchurian officer who wishes to return it to the . . . oh, let's just skip it. Let's skip Wong's funny stepmother and mah-jongg addict (played by Anita Mui) and various other dim characters. Let's skip the bad dubbing and what someone has called (charitably) Asian plot patterns, which means roughly "anything goes at any time."

Let's cut to the fights.

Wow. As in super, double, incredible wow. In one, Chan and that Manchurian (played by Chi-Kwong Cheung) have a spear-and-sword duel in a confined space (i.e., under a railway car). The blades and spear points move with incredible speed and precision and you can't believe two crouching men could be so energetic and so exact in such limited quarters and emerge unblinded.

If limits define that fight, lack of limits define the next, which features the two (now partners) fighting about a hundred ninja types. I mean it: The directors (Chan himself and Chia-Liang Liu) make you believe two against a hundred in a whirling melee that careens through (and destroys) buildings left and right, as the two keep picking up and improvising weapons from broken furniture to splayed bamboo poles to fists and hands. And, oh yes, Chan is drunk (an actual kung fu style, evidently) at the time. So not only is he doing incredible things physically, he's doing them in the character of a drunk!

The final showdown, however, is the best: In this one, he's matched against Ken Lo, who happens to be both his real-life bodyguard and a martial arts champ, and who must have the fastest left foot in the world. Lo fights on his right foot, and his left, held before him, is faster and more agile than a fist, able to block, parry, thrust and kick with incredible power. I've literally never seen anything like it.

They are in a steel mill, and my goodness if that isn't an actual bed of red-hot coals there next to them (Chan rolls through it), and dad-gum it if Chan isn't actually set on fire two or three times, during which he (a) keeps on fighting and (b) keeps on pretending to be drunk. You have to see this to believe it.

The Legend of Drunken Master (102 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for cartoon violence and one point-blank shooting.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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