LEGEND OF DRUNKEN MASTER, THE

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Reviews

After toiling for years as an extra and stunt man, Jackie Chan became a movie star in 1979's Drunken Master, playing real-life Chinese hero Wong Fei-hung. Chan portrayed the turn-of-the-century martial-arts master as a trouble-making rascal whose practical jokes often backfired, an approach that endeared him to audiences throughout Asia. Chan subsequently abandoned period pieces for a string of Hollywood-inspired adventures. But some 15 years later, he returned to the Wong Fei-hung character in Drunken Master II. Now Miramax's Dimension arm is releasing an English-dubbed version under the title The Legend of Drunken Master.

The film opens as Wong Fei-hung (Jackie Chan) and his father (Ti Lung) are journeying home on a crowded train. Their box containing ginseng is inadvertently switched for one holding an antique jade seal. During the mix-up, Wong fights Fu (director Lau Ka Leung, himself a celebrated martial-arts star from the 1960s) in an expertly choreographed battle that moves over, under and around the train.

Wong's attempts to replace the ginseng get him into more and more trouble at home. Forever disappointing his stern father, Wong has an ally in his stepmother (Anita Mui). Ordered not to fight in public, Wong still can't resist showing off his 'drunken boxing,' a style of fighting marked by lurching, stumbling and other unexpected moves. Alcohol is supposed to increase the fighter's flexibility, but Wong tends to drink too much. His fight to retrieve his stepmother's purse from six ruffians leads to what could be an irrevocable break with his father.

The jade seal is crucial to an antique-smuggling ring centered in a local steel foundry. Wong learns about the ring from Fu, who urges him to help protect China's cultural heritage. When Fu is murdered after an attack in a restaurant, Wong teams up with his former rivals to battle the smugglers.

The foundry's enormous sets allow Chan to devise the most dangerous stunts in the film, which include taking a fall down the equivalent of three flights of stairs. The restaurant battle, as much of a staple of kung-fu movies as the saloon brawl is in westerns, is a tour de force of controlled mayhem. But the most dazzling display of Chan's acrobatic skill occurs during the fight over his stepmother's purse. It's an amazing dance of thrusts and parries, of leaps, spins and kicks that defy gravity, all pulled off with breathtaking speed and grace.

Audiences who only know Chan through his Hollywood productions or re-releases are in for a treat-if they can get past the film's non-fighting sequences, which range from broad slapstick to weepy sentimentality. But who complains about the rickety plotting and feeble comedy in classic musicals? The Legend of Drunken Master contains some of the most impressive action routines ever captured on film. This was Chan's last full-fledged martial-arts work, and it's unlikely that anyone will ever make anything like it again.

--Daniel Eagan